Houston marine fuel contamination: VPS reveals exclusive findings

In-house test finds phenolic compounds in every sample taken from ships encountering problems.

Image credit: Veritas Petroleum Services (VPS)

Updated on 29 May 2018 15:35 GMT

By Veritas Petroleum Services (VPS)

On April 26, 2018, Veritas Petroleum Services (VPS) issued a Bunker Alert informing our clients of multiple vessels impacted by a sticking of fuel plungers, fuel-pump seizures and failures, when burning fuel oil bunkered in Houston, Texas.

At that time, it was known to be a widespread problem that was not limited to any particular supplier or barge, but more a potential upstream production, or refinery issue, with the 'true' cause unknown at that time.

Since the initial VPS Bunker Alert, this problem has grown to have affected at least 30 vessels in the VPS Fuel Analysis Programme, making it one of the most widespread fuel quality issues of recent years, with our statistics currently showing eight suppliers and 17 bunker tankers in the chain of supply.

Over the past four weeks, a VPS 'task-force' stationed across our laboratories have undertaken detailed forensic analysis of the many samples we have received from numerous vessels. It was critical that we were able to identify which components were common to all of the fuel samples and have the physical properties which could cause the problems experienced on board our clients' vessels.

The standard test methods within the ISO 8217 specification gave no clues to the underlying problem. Therefore, it was necessary to utilize additional VPS proprietary test methods in order to identify the true cause of the problem.

Applying our 'in-house' acid extraction GCMS method, phenolic compounds were identified as being present in every one of the samples taken from vessels experiencing problems. The phenolic compound of highest concentration in all samples was:

4-Cumyl-Phenol (CAS No. 599-64-4), full name Phenol, 4-(1-methly-1-phenylethyl) in the concentration range of 300ppm to 1,000ppm.

In some samples, VPS also identified high-boiling carboxylic acids (fatty acids), but these were present at much lower levels.

4-Cumyl-Phenol has many industrial uses, including the manufacture of epoxy resins and as an emulsifier in pesticides - both of which utilise the adhesive (sticky) qualities 4-cumyl-phenol exhibits.

Historical cross-checking of the VPS database has highlighted numerous cases dating back to 2007, where VPS has identified fuels containing phenolic compounds which have caused damage to fuel pumps and injectors similar to those witnessed in this recent contamination problem. In addition, cases also showed increased sediment levels at separators and filters, and in some cases completely clogged filters.

The presence of this contaminant is in violation of Clause 5 of ISO 8217 which states: "The fuel should not include any added substance or chemical waste which jeopardizes the safety or adversely affects the performance of the machinery; or is harmful to personnel; or contributes overall to additional air pollution."

Veritas Petroleum Services (VPS) delivers testing, inspection and advisory solutions that help customers achieve measurable improvements to fuel management, fuel cost, operational efficiency and marine fuel regulatory compliance. In close collaboration with the industry, the company introduced the first commercial bunker fuel testing and bunker quantity surveys for ships in 1981 and 1987, respectively.

VPS operates a global network of customer service offices supported round-the-clock by technical experts integrated with four specialised and wholly-owned ISO 17025 accredited fuel testing laboratories strategically located in Rotterdam, Singapore, Houston and Fujairah. Its bunker quantity surveys are available at more than 200 key bunkering ports worldwide.