Protecting LNG tankers from the risk of explosion

Dr Carl Stephen Patrick Hunter's picture
Dr Carl Stephen Patrick Hunter, CEO, Coltraco Ultrasonics
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Addressing fire in tankers is critical, especially when all owners and managers are seeking to reduce risk, cut costs and surge on safety. The safety of tankers is integral for the continuation of their business success. Catastrophic risks to human life, vessel, reputation and revenue all result from a fire event onboard. One simple step towards improving fire safety onboard is ensuring all equipment is intrinsically safe approved, to protect the crew against the risk of explosion. 

The risk of explosion on tankers means that technology inspecting the fixed fire suppression systems must be designed for the atmospheres on tankers. LNG is only dangerous when it meets an ignition source. The International Maritime Risk Rating Agency (IMRRA) placed 12.5% of tankers it assessed in 2017 into the higher risk category for their fire safety. 

Specific areas of risk: The engine room, motor rooms and cargo compressor rooms on tankers carrying LNG & LPG are often protected by CO2 fire suppression systems. Fully operative fire systems on an offshore platform is paramount and demanded by ISO 14520 and PFEER codes. Gaseous extinguishing systems are highly pressurised, the risk of leaking and discharging is accepted as part of their use, shown in the regulations that demand their upkeep e.g. IMO SOLAS FSS Ch5. The systems are pressurised approximately 50 bars, significantly higher than a standard cup of water, which is just 1bar. It’s accepted that these systems are not passive but dynamic, thus requiring monitoring. 

Serious incidents: Serious cases of tanker fires and risks have been reported in the past years. In March 2017 there was an explosion on a Chinese Tanker, in which 3 crew members went missing and serious damage to the vessel was caused.  One of the most tragic incidents of 2018 was the Sanchi oil tanker explosion, on 6 January 2018. After the explosion on the tanker, tragically 31 crew members lost their lives. The Sanchi oil tanker was carrying 136,000 tonnes of natural gas condensate, and the estimate financial damage of the sinking of the vessel is estimated at $110 million.

Tradition Vs Technology: For the gaseous systems, the traditional method requires turning the system off, dismantling and manually weighing each cylinder on industrial scales. Routine maintenance is liable to be overlooked because the crew is unqualified to test or insufficient attention is given by the owner of the system. It’s neglected to the peril of the lives of occupants of the vessel and at the risk of crippling financial and reputational loss to the tanker.

Ultrasound should be harnessed by innovators in the safety of offshore platforms.  By utilising a sensor which acts as a transceiver, an ultrasonic liquid level indicator is capable of detecting liquid levels within any single-skinned container through transmitting an ultrasonic pulse and analysing the strength of the returned signal to determine the level of contents.  Importantly, due to the risk of explosion on the oil and gas tankers, ultrasonic liquid level indicators used on board to ensure fire safety, must be Intrinsically Safe.  

Approve the approval methods: Intrinsically Safe is a design technique applied to electrical equipment and wiring for hazardous locations. The technique is based on limiting energy, electrical and thermal, to a level below that required to ignite a specific hazardous atmospheric mixture. 

Leading operators lead on fire safety: At the request of Shell and similar Tanker Operators, Coltraco Ultrasonics have designed an Intrinsically Safe, ATEX Zone 1 Approved, ultrasonic liquid level indicator which offers unparalleled accuracy, speed and ease of use.  Using innovative methods of inspecting leaking cylinders with ultrasonics, enables identification in under 30 seconds using Portalevel® Intrinsically Safe with one person, instead of the traditional 15 minutes, with two people laboriously weighing. Using ultrasonic technology - to pinpoint the liquid level of suppressant agent in the cylinders of the extinguishing system- testing is quicker and easier.

Ensuring that the fire safety systems on board the gas tankers are operational, via smart ultrasonic technology, designed specifically for explosive atmospheres, is essential for protecting lives, the vessel and the cargo.

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Image courtesy of Coltraco Ultrasonics