VGP and EALS: Peter Vickers Talks to Fathom

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The 2013 Vessel General Permit, which strongly encourages the use of biolubricants in all above-deck equipment and stipulates their use on all oil-to-sea interfaces, is a boon for the growing Environmentally Acceptable Lubricants (EAL) sector.

Peter Vickers, Chairman and Managing Director of the first company to commercialise EALs in 2002, Vickers Oils, talks to Fathom in an exclusive interview on the history of EAL development at Vickers Oils and the future of the EAL market…

Peter Vickers Talks to Fathom Vickers Oils has a history of almost two hundred years; how did the company develop into what it is now?

We are a private, independent lubricants business which was established in 1828 by my great great grandfather; I am the fifth generation of the family to be working in the company. Based in Leeds, we specialised early in textile fibre processing oils as our region produced a lot of wool. We then developed products for other markets including engine oils, and in the 1880s we then began to focus on sterntube oils for the marine sector. One of our marine lubricant brands in actual fact has a trademark dated from 1900.

In 2002 you introduced bio-lubricants into the market. What was the vision behind the development of the first EALS, and why were you convinced that they would be successful, considering that they had never before been available?

That is actually quite a personal story. My wife is from Stockholm and as a result I was myself covering the Swedish market. Twenty years ago, the technical manager of United Tankers – which sadly no longer exists – suggested that we develop a biodegradable sterntube oil. Bar United Tankers and one other company in Sweden, there was absolutely no market demand at the time. A couple of colleagues and myself nonetheless had a deep conviction that it was the right thing to do. The development process was a lot longer than originally anticipated: Our laboratory-based R&D program spanned four years, followed by another five years of sea trials. Perhaps that is one of the advantages of being a private company; we are able to take a very long-term view on our projects. In total, it was a nine year program, which meant that we were able to commercialise in 2002.  As we launched, a market was just beginning to appear and we were able to meet that emerging demand.

Where do your EAL products stand in relation to conventional solutions? What are the advantages of EALs?

The base material of an EAL is esters, which have a naturally wider operating temperature than mineral-based lubricants. Typically they can be used down to -35C. They also have a better viscosity index than mineral oils, allowing the product to maintain performance across a wide variety of temperatures without the need for special additives which can shear and fail.

In some situations there is also the possibility of longer fluid life. (That of course does not apply to sterntube oil which is replaced when the sterntube is opened for equipment replacement.) But some deck equipment could run for many years before more lubricant is needed. We have a case study showing this extended fluid life in relation to mineral oil on a crane. Conventional mineral hydraulic fluid in the cranes for a self-unloading bulker became unfit for use after 350 to 450 hours. Pump failure followed, resulting in repairs and increased costs because the cargo then had to be loaded and unloaded by dockside cranes.

The use of saturated synthetic ester based hydraulic fluid has extended fluid life by a multiple of at least four. The same crane unit has been operating continuously now for approximately 2,000 hours. This has reduced costs and saved time.

How much of an impact will the 2013 Vessel General Permit have on the development of the EAL market and how will this impact Vickers?

The impact of the VGP in the long term will be substantial. We think that the EPA has developed quite an elegant solution to the question of technical feasibility by insisting that the products, as well as being biodegradable, minimally toxic and not bioaccumulative, must also have approval from the equipment manufacturers. This is especially important for critical applications that have not yet had sufficient full five year user experience with EALs. The idea of rolling out the EAL mandate in line with dry-docking and the development of the market itself is very sensible. As a result, we expect it to be another five years before we see the full effect of the VGP.

The stereotype is that whilst the EU tries to emphasise sustainability, emerging markets continue to pollute. How have you seen this play out in your client base?

In this case, the stereotype is wrong. Obviously the shipping industry is world-wide, and a lot of global fleets are managed out of Asia. Our key clients are spread across the globe; no one area dominates.

Moving forward, how will the VGP impact Vickers as a business?

We aim to be a global leader in Environmentally Acceptable Lubricants for the shipping industry and expect a continuous improvement of products as raw material technologies develop over the coming years. We are definitely a niche manufacturer with a narrower product offering than some of the major oil companies, but we are specialised and profoundly knowledgeable about the applications of our products. My own personal time line is towards 2028 when we will celebrate our 200th anniversary as a business.