V-TIC Insight: VLSFO Lessons from the Covid-19 Response

by Ananth Srinivasan, Vice President, V-TIC
Tuesday March 24, 2020

As the world races to find a cure for the Covid-19 (Corona) virus, I find many parallels in how the fuel community is dealing with the challenges of the new fuels and how the global community is dealing with the virus. The lethal nature of Covid-19 makes it a far more complex problem to solve, and a comparison between VLSFOs and Corona challenges on any scale would be incorrect. This article, however, is only focused on the way scientists and problem solvers go about the business of solution finding.

In simple terms, here are some of the steps that are typically go into finding a solution to the threat.

Detect threat – Form strategy to combat threat – Run detailed lab studies – Solution needs to be affordable, scalable, and reproducible - Fight threat

At the end of the day, vaccines create a protein that mirrors the threat protein. The proteins from the vaccine, triggers the body to create an immune response to the threat.

Initially, when a threat has been detected, scientists typically think of a variety of different ways to combat the threat. Lots of data is collected and analyzed on a global scale. Once a strategy has been created, there are typically a couple of ways to create an immune response.

In Path A, which is a simpler and faster way, an older strategy that worked for another virus is modified for the current virus. For example, the current Corona virus is almost 80% similar to the SARS virus. If scientists can come up with a modification of the protein molecule that was used to fight SARS, vaccines can be quickly developed for the Corona virus. In summary, Path A would use the work done on SARS and MERS and use the vaccines that were already formed (80% similarity in genetic material) and jump start the vaccine process for Covid 19.

Path B is more complex and takes more time. Essentially, in this approach, research almost starts from scratch and will need identifying individual proteins and making sure you get 100% of the genetic material. Unfortunately, this will also mean lots of research and repeated trials.

VLSFOs have now been in the market for a few months and as problems surface with these new fuels, technical teams around the world also use similar methods to deal with such challenges. With problems ranging from high pour point to off-spec TSP (Total Sediment Potential), suppliers and ship owners alike are racing against time to ensure ships are not floating on water without power.

In our experience, we have seen suppliers working with additive companies and labs to first see if the old additive solutions that were used for HFOs also work with VLSFOs. As VLSFOs are made differently from HFOs, V-TIC's research has shown that old additives (that were typically used for HFOs) cannot be easily used unless some minor modifications are made to the additive chemistry. More and more additive companies are using strategies like Path A mentioned above to reduce the time taken to develop the end solution and to help suppliers and ship owners alike to get on-spec products. As the graphic below shows, approach to additive based solutions to off-spec fuels mirrors some of the approaches used in other fields. Path B, shown below, is a much longer process that may not suit the pressing needs of customers.

The key to success, in our opinion, is a strong working relationship between the fuel supplier, a Testing lab with a strong research background, and additive companies. Every VLSFO has a unique signature, and by understanding the fingerprints of these VLSFOs, suppliers can ensure flawless execution on the ship.

The current news cycle is filled with stories about ships in quarantine. The marine industry has dealt with similar challenges over the years with disabled ships because of fuel or other problems. As the Corona virus unfolds, although the problems are different, we would do well to learn from each other on methods of problem solving. With time against us, the faster we learn from each other, the sooner will all the ships ply around the world without worry.