The Value & Importance of Low-Cost, Pre-Burn, Rapid GCMS Screening of Marine Fuels

by Steve Bee, Group Commercial & Business Development Director, VPS
Thursday April 28, 2022

The recent marine fuel contamination case in Singapore and the 2018 case in Houston, were major incidents, which thankfully do not occur too often on the scales witnessed. However VPS, throughout any one year, do detect chemical contamination of fuels on a regular basis, from fuels supplied across the world. These cases tend to be infrequent but they have the potential to be very high impact.

The greatest challenge in detecting chemical contamination is the many thousands of organic compounds that exist which may contaminate the marine fuel, which is itself comprised of thousands of organic hydrocarbon compounds. VPS has used its years of experience and expertise in testing marine fuels to develop numerous proprietary testing methodologies to detect chemical contaminants, in order to protect our client's vessels. This protecion principally involves a screening methodology, whereby relatively speedy testing, screens the marine fuel and if contaminants are detected, then progressively more complex tests are applied. This approach is very similar to that adopted by the health agencies around the world when they introduced rapid antigen testing for COVID.

A number of years ago, VPS recognised proactive, pre-burn monitoring of chemicals present in marine fuels, would be a highly-valued approach to ship operators, in order to avoid damage to vessels, in addition to post-burn forensic investigations after a vessel had already suffered damages. Therefore, in order to make GCMS a rapid, yet affordable option for routine chemical contamination detection, VPS introduced it's chemical screening service, which utilies GCMS-Head Space as its detection technique.

At the pre-burn stage, this is a qualitative test method, which can detect more than 70% of all chemical contaminants which could be found in fuel. This includes the likes of styrene, DCPD, indene, etc, but also the chlorinated hydrocarbons recently found within the Singapore fuels. The results of the VPS chemical screening test are reported with the ISO8217 test parameter results and within 24-hours of receipt of samples into our laboratories.

So far in 2022, over 8.5% of GSMS-HS screening tests have shown a "Caution" result, indicating a significant presence of chemical contamination. This compares with 7.5% in 2021 and 5.2% in 2020 and correlates with the price of crude oil. Thus, a trend of increasing levels of chemical contamination over the past three years, being identified by VPS GCMS-HS screening service before the fuel is burnt.

This service provides the pre-burn response many within the industry value, as it gives a very early warning of anything untoward within the fuel. This alert also allows the vessel to place the supplier on notice, prior to further laboratory investigations. The cost of such a GCMS screening service is only tens of dollars, which becomes insignificant in comparison to the cost of a single fuel stem delivery, or the high cost of any damage repair and even the cost of potential repetitional damage to a vessel operator.

Should a GCMS-HS screen highlight a "caution" status for a fuel, VPS can then swiftly move to an extended GCMS-HS analysis, which gives more detailed information on the contaminant present.

However, its worth noting that GCMS is not a single "black-box"of tricks which can provide all the answers. There are literally thousands of chemicals, all with different chemistries. Therefore, to detect and identify certain chemical groups, requires expertise and experience in GCMS sample pre-treatment and applying the correct methodology.

VPS have spent years developing and refining our range of proprietary GCMS methods and services, to cover chemical contamination. These include not only Head Space analysis, but Vacuum Distillation and Acid Extraction techniques. Of course, the more time taken for the forensic analysis of a sample, costs increase, as some of this work can take 2-3 days. However, these investigations are usually post-burn, after a vessel has already suffered damages and when a potential claim situation is likely to be undertaken. As a consequence these GCMS analysis costs can rise to hundreds, of dollars per sample.

Therefore, VPS firmly believe taking a proactive protection approach, is the best route in avoiding a vessel suffering damages due to chemical contamination. Ship operator interests are best served by undertaking routine, low-cost, pre-burn, rapid GCMS-HS screening of their fuel, for every bunker delivery to every vessel. And of course should more detailed follow-up analysis be required, then there is already an informative starting point with respect to the identification of the contaminant prior to more detailed forensic GCMS analysis.

For further information regarding VPS GCMS Analytical Services, please contact or your local VPS office. Details of which can be found at