Rise of new fuels raises questions about adequacy of mariner training

LNG handling

New maritime fuels are coming or are already here, and the associated changes are raising concerns about the readiness of today’s mariners. For example, the rise of liquefied natural gas (LNG), which is handled in ways dramatically different from fuel oil or diesel, has some concerned that not enough has been done to prepare those who may start to encounter the fuel in their work.

And while LNG is the main focus at the moment, a recent study prepared by Lloyd’s Register and the UCL Energy Institute points to other alternatives that may develop market momentum of their own, further complicating training challenges.

LNG handling
LNG is a natural gas that has been cooled to a liquid at minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit. Those who handle it have to deal with the freezing of valves and surfaces, both on vessels and
shoreside tanks.

According to “Global Marine Fuel Trends 2030,” demand will likely double by that year given the scenarios that the authors assessed. In each, demand for heavy fuel oil (HFO) is projected to increase through 2025, potentially falling back to 2010 levels by 2030 as operators continue to respond to stricter environmental regulations. But at the same time, marine diesel oil (MDO) and marine gas oil (MGO) could reach 50 percent of total demand.

Those two fuels, at least, are relatively familiar. But the authors mention three other fuels in addition to LNG that have a shot at taking some meaningful market share: primarily low sulfur fuel oil (LSFO), but also hydrogen and methanol.

With that broad spectrum of fuels in the pipeline, some industry experts — notably the head of the American Bureau of Shipping, Christopher Wiernicki — are suggesting it’s time for action. In a keynote address late in 2020, Wiernicki suggested that the rapid adoption of LNG means training needs to be updated, at least for crew on LNG-fueled vessels.

With LNG clearly in mind, he noted that the “next-generation fuels” have a dynamic nature not present previously — namely they can change physical state during the course of a voyage depending on how much fuel is used and ambient conditions (e.g. boil-off of product).

To be sure, the maritime industry has had experience handling almost every kind of fuel, but usually just as cargo or in highly specialized vessels such as LNG tankers. This knowledge will need to become more universal as ship types multiply — dual-fuel or even tri-fuel vessels — and as new fuels gain traction.

Wiernicki said he believes the International Maritime Organization (IMO) will seek to update SOLAS to account for the challenges posed by the alternate fuels and other new technologies. He also pointed out that current crew training standards were developed a long time ago, prior to the internet and the advent of cellphones.

Peter Lindsey, vice president of the marine sector at Purify Fuel in Houston, said that apart from LNG in the “new fuels” category, there are more additives coming into the market to make marine fuels safer, more efficient or more environmentally compliant. Therefore, he said, vessel operators and bunkering crews are increasingly going to be asked to “additize” fuels being delivered, based on the needs of the customer.

“Bunker barge crews might be tasked with adding things to barge tanks that they aren’t doing as much today,” Lindsey said. New technologies are emerging to help do this safely, including metered injection systems, but in either case “there is a training element … working out the math for proper dosing, dealing with pouring potentially hazardous liquids into a barge tank, etc.”

Regarding LNG, Lindsey said the industry is going from “hot” fuels that sometimes need to be warmed to 160 degrees Fahrenheit to flow properly to a fuel that involves cryogenics in storage and handling. “Mariners will need to understand that it (LNG) always wants to become a gas,” he said. As a result, freezing of valves and surfaces will be a problem because decompressing a gas causes a loss of temperature.

Other potential training issues were identified by Simon Hooton, technical product manager at North Ridge Pumps in the United Kingdom. He has found that when users switch to LSFO they sometimes experience issues with their equipment, such as leakage from mechanical seals due to the viscosity of the fuel being much lower than what original pumps had been designed to handle. He also has seen instances of accelerated pump wear (LSFO can contain abrasive particles that lead to premature pump failure). These are new challenges that personnel will need to understand.

 “Customers need to be aware when handling such fuels that maintenance should be performed more frequently, as systems are designed with very small tolerances … to function as intended due to the high pressures involved,” Hooton said. If equipment is operated outside of these parameters, he added, it can quickly lead to failure.

Unsurprisingly, third-party training is starting to emerge for the new fuel alternatives. In Europe, a large operator is working with Wartsila to enhance crew simulator training. According to Wartsila, its customized LNGPac bunkering and liquid cargo-handling simulators have been installed at the customer’s largest maritime training centers. Although targeted primarily at users of Wartsila’s LNG-handling equipment, the company noted that the training aligns with the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW) and International Code of Safety for Ships Using Gases or other Low-Flashpoint Fuels (IGF Code).

In North America, the United States Maritime Resource Center (USMRC) in Middletown, R.I., offers training for LNG users. “Basic and Advanced Low-Flashpoint Fuel Operations” is taught in partnership with Harvey Gulf International Marine, which was the first operator of an LNG-fueled vessel on the continent. Other USMRC instructors include marine fuel experts with extensive LNG experience.

Rick Schwab, senior director of the Maritime and Industrial Training Center at Delgado Community College in New Orleans, said the school is “building a tankering program with LNG and looking at things on the firefighting side as well.” He said the LNG industry has a big presence in his area, so there is often an overlap between the concerns and needs of mariners and those of shore-based operations. Both communities are served by the center.

“We are looking at options to help and assist anyone – industry leaders and associations,” he said.

On the West Coast, Julie Keim, who operates Compass Courses in Edmonds, Wash., said she is taking a somewhat more conservative approach. “To be honest, I react to what the Coast Guard has put out on the subject, because if you offer something before it is required, it doesn’t work,” she said. “Companies will tell you they don’t want to pay for it.”

At this point, she added, there have not been any inquiries about LNG training. “We have fewer training schools on this coast, so we tend to react to what is happening on the East Coast,” she said.

For Lindsey, the key is to get widespread training accomplished and out in the field so that even deck hands know and better understand what they are facing with LNG and other new fuels. “Everyone will need to be more careful, whether it is passing over a grounding cable to a barge or properly handling tank bleed-offs,” he said.

Wiernicki said new fuels present “one of the major challenges the industry needs to address, and companies will need to embrace more competency-based training to ensure crews and shore staff fully understand the safety aspects … and what to do in all operational scenarios, both planned and unplanned.”

This will have an impact on the International Safety Management (ISM) Code as well, he said, because management systems will need to address continuous training and support a closer link between crews and shore-based teams.

By Professional Mariner Staff