Warning system monitors lube oil on ships

Sunderland University researchers have developed a computerised early-warning system that monitors the condition of ship’s lube oil.

Many ships’ engine rooms have become automated, with sensor systems being put in place to monitor temperature, pressure, fluid level and flow monitoring. Lube oil, however, has remained a void in the engine-management system.

The university’s Institute for Automotive and Manufacturing Advanced Practice (AMAP) team has now developed a software programme for a sensor-based processing unit − the Posseidon system − that can continuously monitor the ship’s lubricated system, allowing crews on board to predict any deterioration or contamination in the oil and anticipate problems, allowing them to take action before damage and failure occurs.

The unit takes the form of a ‘black box’ attached to the ship’s main engine and the software that monitors the oil warns crews if there’s a potential problem and even provides solutions on how best to tackle it.

The unit will reportedly extend the engine’s life, avoid loss of performance and could prevent worst-case catastrophic failures such as a ship floundering through loss of propulsion or a power blackout.

The Posseidon Project is made up of a consortium of maritime partners − Fundación Tekniker, BP Marine, Oelcheck, Martechnic, IMM (International Mercantile Marine), Rina and IB Krates − who have all had an input into the unit. The project was funded by the EU as part of Framework Programme 6.

Dr David Baglee, who led the three-and-a-half-year project, said: ‘The main propulsion engine of a ship can circulate 40 tons of expensive lube oil that, in addition to its normal in-service ageing, is exposed to contamination factors such as fresh and sea water, fuel oil and the products of combustion from heavy fuel that started its life as refinery waste. Also, accidental topping up with the wrong oil is not unheard of.

‘These operating realities present ships’ engineers with a degree of jeopardy unacceptable in a modern context. But, in the operating environs of the maritime industry, they have little choice.

‘Therefore, the economics surrounding this vital fluid are significant. While engine spare parts are costly, the penalties of interrupted service for a ship can be crippling, costing millions of pounds for every day a vessel is out of action.’

The sensor unit will monitor the main properties of the lubricating oil − viscosity, water-in-oil, base number and impurities − and oil degradation.

The system is claimed to be robust enough to withstand the operating environment aboard a ship with motion, vibration, varying temperature and humidity over extended periods of time, without service or specialist attention.

Baglee believes that the software can be adapted for multiple use in other industries, such as wind power.