LPG is being talked of as a future fuel “no-brainer” for VLGCs, and now there is a hint that some big bulker owners are also considering it as an option to make their ships 2020-compliant.

Pontus Berg, senior vice president and head of technical and operations at BW LPG, should know.

He has been working on LPG fuelling since 2012, initially with Evergas, which originally considered using LNG for its ethane-­carrying Dragon-class ships. But on the initiative of charterer ­Ineos, these ships later went on to bunker ethane.

“This has been a project that has been very high on my agenda for quite some time. 2020 is coming and we have the gas onboard,” Berg says, explaining that vessels can bunker at LPG loadports. “The more I look at it, the more sense it makes.”

Looking at the alternative

Berg has talked to quite a few of the large bulk players who have been looking at LNG and who are now quite interested in considering LPG as an alternative.

But there was one problem: ­engine manufacturers had yet to come up with the propulsion ­system because they had been concentrating on developing systems for ships bunkering LNG and, lately, ethane.

This year, MAN Energy Solutions came up with the goods after testing its two-stroke LPG engine.

In September, BW LPG announced it would be retrofitting four of its VLGCs so they could use LPG as a fuel.

"If everything goes to plan, when the first vessel comes out, this is going to be the first LPG-propelled [marine] ­engine"
Pontus Berg, senior vice president and head of technical and operations at BW LPG

The company has signed a contract with MAN for the retrofit of the engines and is talking to Wartsila and TGE Marine Gas Engineering about the fuel gas systems. Once this has been concluded, it will decide — probably in March or April — on a yard in ­Singapore or China to carry out the work.

In the first quarter of 2020, the company will undertake conversion of its 84,145-cbm VLGCs BW Gemini, BW Leo, BW Libra and BW Orion (all built 2015) during their first dry-dockings. Each retrofit is expected to add 40 to 50 days to the scheduled work.

“It is a big job but it is not very complicated,” Berg says.

The most complex part is changing the top part of the engine — the cylinder heads and fuel-­injection system.

The bunker tanks and other equipment, such as the fuel gas supply pumps, will be built in modules and brought in for fitting.

There is a mystery element to the job.

“We are installing two fairly large deck tanks,” Berg says.

“I will not tell you how big they are as we wish to keep this a secret for now.”

The size of the type-C tanks, which will sit amidships and slightly forward of the manifold, requires some serious under-deck strengthening to increase the range of the ships without affecting the cargo-carrying capacity.

Coy on costs

Berg ducks out of giving any costs on the retrofit job, except to say it will be more than fitting a scrubber but cheaper than retrofitting a gas-injection engine.

If MAN had been ready earlier, he adds, BW LPG would have started with the first two vessels — the 84,196-cbm BW Aries (built 2014) and BW Carina (built 2015) — in this Hyundai Heavy Industries-­built series.

But these will now run on low-sulphur fuel oil from 2020 and be retrofitted later if the first project proves successful.

The four retrofitted VLGCs will be industry pioneers.

Berg says: “If everything goes to plan, when the first vessel comes out, this is going to be the first LPG-propelled [marine] ­engine.”

The vessels will redeliver from the yard in the first half of 2020, ahead of the first two LPG-fuelled VLGC newbuildings, which have been contracted by ­Exmar on the back of charters with Equinor.

‘It will be interesting’

BW LPG will have additional ­personnel on hand during the installation work and to get experience of the new systems during sea and gas trials. The company will monitor the vessels’ performance for feedback. “It’s ­going to be interesting,” Berg says.

BW LPG's four VLGCs have no term charterers yet, but Berg says commercial discussions are ongoing.

“If this turns out to be interesting for the market, then we are open to declare more [retrofit] ­options.

“But we need a charterer to come onboard first to say this is an interesting deal. It is difficult to sell a product that doesn’t exist.”