Lubricant Formulations Challenged by IMO 2020

SINGAPORE – Marine lubricants will need formulations for multiple types of fuel when ship owners comply with IMO 2020 regulations effective Jan. 1, 2020, industry experts said at a conference here last month.

The International Maritime Organizations IMO 2020 will impose a global limit of 0.5 percent limit on sulfur content in marine fuels, compared to the 3.5 percent limit that currently applies in most parts of the world.

Infineum estimates that 40 percent of ships will use low sulfur marine fuel or marine gas oil with less than 0.5 percent sulfur content, 35 percent will use residual blends with less than 0.5 percent sulfur, 10 percent will be equipped with exhaust scrubbers allowing them to use high-sulfur fuel oils, 5 percent will use alternatives and the remaining ships will be non-compliant. Scrubbers allow vessel owners to use fuel with a sulfur content greater that 0.5 percent but require lubricants with a higher base number.

“Fuel supply will be multi-fuel because we dont know the conditions,” Pui Fun Cheong, marine business advisor of Infineum Singapore Pte, told an audience at the ICIS Asian Base Oils & Lubricants Conference here. Most fuels are expected to be blends from different sources and with different refining processes. This can bring about discrepancies in fuel characteristics, leading to issues of compatibility and stability.

IMO 2020 blends that use new ingredients may have poor stability and not meet the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea – or SOLAS – flashpoint limit or may contain chemical components with an adverse impact on machines, Unni Einemo, director of the International Bunker Industry Association said in an April article on its website.

Another risk is that various new fuel blends wont be compatible, and unfortunately it looks like that risk will be much higher than it is today because products will vary much more in their chemical composition, the association director added.

Apart from new compliant blends, ship owners could use heavy fuel oil, hybrid fuels and distillates. Although the supply of low-sulfur fuel is expected to be available at most ports, there are no numbers. There seems to be a wait-and-see attitude among the ship owners on how to comply with regulations, said Simon Tarrant, business manager for large engines at Lubrizol Corp.

IMO 2020 is challenging the basis for formulated solutions. Base numbers are no longer suitable surrogates for lubricant performance, and new performance additives are required to bridge evolving marine cylinder lubricant performance gaps, said Cheong. A lubricants base number, commonly referred to as BN, is an indicator of its ability to neutralize the acidic products formed during combustion caused by sulfur in the fuel.

Also, new fuels are not widely available, so it is hard to get one and test. The ideal is to have a new 40 BN fuel and the chemistry detergency to manage the new fuels. Such instability has to be managed, said Tarrant.

When reducing base numbers, detergency has to be reduced as well. Lubricants need to strike a balance between decreasing BN and maintaining sufficient detergency, added Cheong.

A lubricant should be able and robust enough for multi-feed, multi-conditions. Tailored needs are warranted, she said. Other lubricant formulation issues include acid neutralization, asphaltene dispersion, lacquering control and deposit control.

Next year will be quite painful for people. There is a lot of learning for the industry, and new solutions dont come for free; it is an industry which is cost averse. It will be more complex for lubes in the future, said Tarrant.

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