2020 IMO Regulations: Meeting the New Limits on Sulphur Oxides

New IMO regulations have come into force – mandating the sulphur content of marine fuels in global waters to be less than 0.5%. The aim is to significantly reduce emissions of sulphur oxides (SOx), which are harmful to the environment. This is a relatively big step. The last global cap came into force in July 2012 when the sulphur content was regulated down from 4.5% to 3.5% in global waters. In addition to the global cap, the IMO also introduced the known – “Emission Control Areas” (ECAs) in key shipping routes, regulating sulphur limits from 1.5% to 1.0% in 2010 and eventually down to 0.1% in 2015.

In order to meet the new limits, shipping companies seek on one hand compliant and technically feasible solutions that on the other hand are also commercially feasible (i.e affordable).

A popular solution is to operate ships with Very Low Sulphur Fuel Oil (VLSFO) ie. 0.5% or even with Ultra Low Sulphur Fuel Oil (ULSFO) ie. 0.1% which is already mainly used in Sulphur Emission Controlled Areas.

In order to use these low sulphur fuels, bunker tanks had to be cleaned, and engines and fuel oil transfer systems assessed and verified on their technical feasibility. Where necessary, equipment and systems were modified to safely operate over the range of compliant bunker grades. Lubricating oil tank capacities were also reviewed, as sulphur has beneficial lubricity characteristics and low sulphur content in fuel oils requires balancing the missing lubricity by using other lubricating oils.

A new generation of low sulphur fuels, so called Hybrid Fuel Oils have been introduced, which claim to burn cleaner and faster than traditional oils whilst retaining good net calorific values.

Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) is also a low sulphur fuel but, if technically possible at all, requires significant, costly and time intensive modifications to the ship and its systems if not designed in when built.

The availability of the above-mentioned bunker grades and the impact on bunker prices remain uncertain.

LNG is not globally available in all ports and is unlikely to provide a solution for the majority of ships.

Another solution to the sulphur compliance is the use of scrubbers. Scrubbers are exhaust gas treatment plants that bring a gas stream into contact with a liquid, aiming for gaseous components to pass from the gas to the liquid. Scrubbers cannot only be fitted on new buildings but are also a retrofit solution, for existing tonnage. With scrubbers installed, traditional high sulphur fuels can continue to be burned since the SOx in the exhaust is reduced to a very low level.

With an estimated 5-6% of the world fleet being outfitted with scrubbers at the beginning of 2020, the demand for high sulphur fuels will decrease and it is uncertain whether high sulphur bunkers will easily be available in all ports.

Ultra Low Sulphur Fuels and Very Low Sulphur Fuels face a higher demand, which may lead to an increasing scarcity, or possibly unavailability, of VLSFO in the first months of 2020. Consequentially ULSFO will be burned aboard more vessels.

Managing all the possible scenarios associated with IMO 2020 in a safe and compliant way required diligent preparation and joint efforts by all team members ashore and afloat, and in order to be prepared and ready on time, Uniteam Marine started work early.

Technical assessments were carried out on all our full managed vessels, and modifications were carried out if deemed safety relevant and necessary. Fuel change over plans were developed and our seagoing and shore staff received thorough training to enable a smooth transition to the new rules. We were also pleased to be able to offer consultation to a number of our clients.

The new regulations are a big step towards operating ships in a more sustainable way and we are glad to support our clients in keeping their vessels green, safe, reliable and profitable.

Lars Helge Evers, Technical Director