Mass Flow Meters: Boon or Bane?

Bunker Bulletin

24 October 2014 – Mass Flow Meter Technology, once viewed as an exotic method for measuring bunkers, is gaining traction in Singapore. But determining whether technology is a boon or bane for the bunker industry and shipowners is another question. Writes Gabien Chew.

Mass Flow Meter (MFM) technology has been used in various industries for over 30 years but it was only around late 2007 when news of the technology's use in the bunkering industry started surfacing.

The technology is known for its ability to measure bunkers accurately while detecting trapped air in the product. Back then, it was perhaps seen as an exotic approach towards stamping out the “cappuccino effect”. Fast forward to 2014, we see the use of MFMs beginning to gain acceptance in the marine fuels marketplace. The technology is expected to be widely discussed at the 18th Singapore International Bunkering Conference and Exhibition (SIBCON) this year because of Singapore’s mandatory requirement that MFMs be used in the local marine fuels industry from January, 2017.

The requirement means approximately 150 bunker tanker used for fuel oil delivery, out of the total 217 bunker tankers delivering bunkers in the Port of Singapore, will need to be fitted with MFM technology. A Coriolis flow meter is deemed to be the standard MFM that most players will acquire.

Industry estimates put the average cost of a Coriolis flow meter with flow measurement capacity of up to 1,000 metric tonnes (mt) per hour at SGD 150,000, or roughly $120,300. Installation cost is believed to be around the same amount, which means an investment upwards of $240,000 is needed to outfit a bunker tanker with MFM.

After deducting the lump sum incentive of $63,500 provided by the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) for vessels installing an MFM on board, the total cost for each vessel adopting the technology will be $176,500.

Given the 150 tankers that need to be fitted with MFM, Singapore’s bunkering industry will thus need to spend roughly$26.5 million to comply with the mandatory requirement. This does not include the investments made by MPA to charter a bunker tanker as a test platform to conduct acceptance tests as well as engaging technical verifiers for the test results at no cost to the industry.

One can view the sum as the price to pay to further enhance the image of Singapore’s bunkering industry. Further, the move is said to ensure a more level playing field for suppliers in Singapore’s competitive bunker industry.

But given that the technology’s use in the bunkering industry is still in its infancy, it would be interesting to see how bunkering firms and shipowners in Singapore will fare under the mandatory regime.

The development is made possible not only through the MPA, but also the support of other government agencies including the Ministry of Trade and Industry, the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) and Spring Singapore, the republic’s standards council.

The Working Group under Spring Singapore was responsible for outlining the Singapore standard for MFMs, including accuracy, equipment/system specifications, technical and operational procedures, documentation, calibration/verification, and system integrity. A*STAR, meanwhile, paved the way for the introduction of calibration services for MFMs at the port.

Leading bunker craft operators, such as Hong Lam Marine and Sinanju Tankers, also played a part in evaluating MFMs by participating in MFM trials at the port since 2010.

Such concerted efforts at the world’s major bunkering hub appeared to have gained the confidence of Maersk, which is aiming for a large-scale rollout of the technology on its fleet.

The Singapore branch of Maersk Oil Trading has been working with local marine technology firm Ascenz to enhance MFM technology even further through the use of the Ascenz controller. The Ascenz controller is a marine-fuel-monitoring device which, when paired with an MFM unit of any model, remotely transmits operational details of a vessel’s bunkering activities to an onshore terminal via satellite, WIMAX or GSM.

“Anybody can read a number from the display of a flow meter and write it down on a bunker delivery note (BDN),” says Joshua Low Chin Chuan, the Global Head of Trading at Maersk Oil Trading, during an earlier interview with Bunkerworld.

However, he added that purchasing an MFM and installing it onboard the vessel is not the end of it.

“Of course the centre piece of it will be the flow meter but you also need some accessories to complement the meter,” said Low.

He added that even though a flow meter measured the amount of bunker fuel transferred during an operation, it was just a part of the solution. “The other half is getting the information unaltered onto shore without any interference.”

He noted that the current practice of sending a person on a launch boat to board a vessel for the purpose of collecting flow meter data is “inefficient”.

“There has got to be a better way than this, and this is where the Ascenz controller comes in. With it, we can use the device to transmit data from the flow meter directly to a website via satellite or a GSM mobile network without human interface.

“We can log onto this website which Ascenz provides us and we can monitor the bunkering process 24/7 on a real-time basis with many of my colleagues in Copenhagen and New York being able to access and analyse the data.

“So for me the Ascenz controller is another essential part of the whole flow-meter setup.”

Low acknowledged the high cost of flow meters, which would be passed down to clients and consumers. However he believed any business doing a cost-benefit analysis would find justifications for using the technology.

“For Maersk the two main factors are transparency and efficiency, which are two very strong economic justifications,” said Low.

“These two factors will generate economic benefit for the user with the benefit being greater than cost.” Ascenz said more than 200 vessels from various international shipping firms have used the Ascenz controller so far.