Pushing lubricant formulations to new limits

Jun 27, 2022 | Featured Article, Opinion

Marcus Schaerer, GM Technical & Services, Shell Marine looks at how lubricant manufacturers ensure products keep evolving while shipping continues transforming

Q. What are the main issues?

A. As the energy transition continues at pace, the landscape of the shipping industry is transforming in response. OEMs are developing more powerful engine and component designs, while the fuels mosaic is expanding as alternative, lower-carbon options become more widely available. In turn, lubricant manufacturers like Shell are adapting too, by pushing maintenance technology and lubricant formulations to new limits.

For a traditionally slower-to-act industry like shipping, the pace of these changes might seem startling – however, it’s speed that is needed if the sector is to meet the decarbonisation aims set out by the International Marine Organization (IMO) to reduce total annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by at least 50% come 2050. Fortunately, the right partner can help businesses to alleviate the pressure caused by these changes, by strategically addressing each challenge involved in the energy transition.

Q. How difficult is it to adapt to an alternative fuel mosaic?

A. As an increasing number of lower-carbon fuels become available at scale – from ammonia and methanol to hydrogen and bioLNG – their lubricant counterparts will be forced to adapt. However, just how much adaption this will involve is still unclear, since many specifications for lubricants in engines using these future fuels have not yet been confirmed.

This level of uncertainty is having a knock-on effect throughout the value chain, threatening disruption at each stage, whether in product development or availability. Fortunately, lubricant manufacturers are well equipped to prevent these kinds of breakdowns, thanks to technical know-how and strong relationships with shipowners, operators and OEMs.

Q. How important is collaboration amid these changes?

A. The secret here is collaboration – and like all good collaboration, it’s rooted in communication. Only by talking to shipowners and operators can lubricant manufacturers understand what a lubricant must deliver. Likewise, only by working closely with OEMs can we formulate fluids that not only survive but thrive in the most demanding of engine environments. A good example is MAN Energy Solutions’ recent decision to provide Shell Alexia 40 XC with a full No Objection Letter, having closely collaborated with Shell to develop the approved CAT II lubricant for engines operating with <0.5% sulphur fuels, ranging from VLSFO to LNG.

As this proves, it’s not just operating extremes that dictate lubrication development, but operating intricacies too. Between two-stroke and four-stroke engines, lubrication has various specifications and requirements to contend with – from operating with ‘zero-sulphur’ fuels and performing in a low-ash environment to monitoring both compatibility and stability. As a result, characteristics like detergency, dispersancy, thermal resistance and wear protection must be carefully considered.

Q. Why is intelligent monitoring the smart choice?

A. Helping to fight this battle is intelligent lubrication monitoring, which works to establish baselines and provide insights into oil performance, giving both manufacturers and operators greater insight into what their oil is – or is not – doing well. With this information readily available, whether related to loading, contamination or wear debris, a more holistic picture can be built up, allowing decisions to be made both accurately and quickly. Intelligent monitoring’s value also extends to regulatory compliance, since it can be critical for understanding the impact of IMO 2020 fuels on engines by using sweep tests to find the right feed rate, in addition to more general cylinder monitoring.

Depending on the particular program being used, intelligent monitoring can even provide continuous, real-time updates on oil and equipment health, shifting maintenance towards a predictive model that helps identify and avoid issues before they have time to fully develop. As these updates – or datapoints – accrue over time, more in-depth insights and trends can be established, with programs like Shell LubeMonitor and VitalyX offering a wealth of historical engine and oil data to be benchmarked against.

Q. Is there a more efficient future on the horizon?

A. With many industrial sectors eyeing 2050 targets, it’s imperative that businesses throughout the shipping value chain prioritise immediate decarbonising action as well as long-term strategies. In part, this action is being encouraged by current or more immediate regulations like the Carbon Intensity Indicator, but laying a strong foundation now is likely to pay off in the future too.

Which is why a combination of higher-performing engines, future fuels and advanced lubrication solutions are so important, as they can both initiate the change that is needed today, while laying the groundwork for a more efficient future. And of course, intelligent monitoring can act as the glue that binds these various elements together, by ensuring ships are protecting performance while keeping their environmental impact to a minimum.

So, for lubricant manufacturers, the job doesn’t really change so much as it evolves. Despite engines becoming more efficient, fuel more advanced and monitoring services more intelligent, lubrication still performs the same primary role: protecting components from wear and extending the lifespan of engines and vessels. It’s just that the formulations involved become a little more complex in the process.