"There is no power greater than an idea whose time has come." This ancient homily may be profound, but in this case it is profoundly untrue! The idea for the POSSEIDON (Progressive Oil Sensor System for Extended IDentification ONline) proposal was born more than 20 years ago out of dire necessity; and although the need remains unmet, the solution is still painfully out of reach. 

Lube oil is a critical fluid onboard ship. It is the lifeblood of propulsion and power generating engines, and any quality failure leaves the vessel, its cargo, the community onboard and even the environment at the mercy of the most hostile operating condition on Earth. Precise analysis of engine lube oil can only be performed in shore-based laboratories, and the logistics of the maritime industry leaves operators with unreasonable extended periods between analyses. Over the intervening years, field tests for basic lube oil parameters have been developed in an attempt to bridge this vulnerability gap. Dependent upon the skill and diligence of increasingly undertrained and overstretched crews, the inadequacy of these stop-gap measures is exacerbated as ship engine rooms become ever more automated. While sensor systems have replaced temperature, pressure, fluid level and flow monitoring, lube oil quality remains a void in the engine management system. 

The main propulsion engine of a ship can circulate 40 tons of expensive lube oil that, in addition to its normal in-service aging, 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 an unheard of event. These operating realities present ships engineers with a degree of jeopardy unacceptable in a modern context. In the operating environs of the maritime industry, they have little choice.

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. In addition, the lube oil suppliers who have a duty-of-care in this challenging application are obliged to maintain an on-demand, logistically heavy, global analysis service in an attempt to protect both themselves and their customers. This cost is reflected in the price of marine lubes, and both sides understand and have accepted the inadequacy of the system. A consequence of this predicament is a declining number of lube oil suppliers – now down to just five worldwide.

Over the past two decades, attempts have been made to address this problem (particularly by consortium partners BP & Martechnic), only to discover that the necessary techniques do not exist and that the specialized means to develop them are available only outside of the maritime industries. It is only through the auspices of bodies such as the EC that the disciplines and resources can be assembled in a program focused on solving this perennial problem. The POSSEIDON proposal is, hopefully, finally "an idea whose time has come".

The University of Sunderland AMAP’s POSSEIDON proposal addresses the development of a complete sensor-based processing unit that can continuously monitor ship lubricated systems – in particular, marine main propulsion and power-generating engines, in order to provide an effective scrutiny over its serviceable life, enabling non-skilled operating crews to predict degradation, anticipate problems and take remedial action before damage and failure occurs. This will extend engine lifetime, avoid loss of performance and could prevent worst-case catastrophic failures such as a ship foundering through loss of propulsion or electricity generating power (blackout). There are also environmental benefits to be realized, as the optimization of lube oil reduces the quantity of spend lubricant destined for disposal. With an annual marine market of 2 million tons, this is not insignificant.

This sensor unit will provide monitoring over the main properties of lubricating oil (viscosity, water-in-oil, base number and total impurities) that indicate oil degradation. Together with standard on-line wear debris and vibration parameter analyses, these properties also will enhance engine operation by providing a more precise understanding of actual engine status and wear. This will enable timely scheduling of remedial actions, the incorporation of proactive maintenance measures and progression toward condition monitoring for marine engines. These will include selected oil replenishment to provide optimum lube oil conditions for engine operation, worn component replacement to suit the vessel’s schedule and surveys based on real conditions as opposed to arbitrary time periods. 

The POSSEIDON system will need to be capable of withstanding the unique operating environment aboard a ship with motion, vibration, wide temperature and humidity variations and be robust enough to provide reliable performance over extended periods without service or specialist attention. The information generated by such probes will be enabled for integration into shipboard data management and expert/control systems, including transmission to and from remote locations.

Contact details:
Dr. David Baglee
POSSEIDON Project Manager 
AMAP Institute
University of Sunderland
The Industry Centre
Colima Avenue
Sunderland Enterprise Park West
Hylton Riverside
Sunderland
Tyne & Wear
SR5 3XB

Telephone: 0191 515 2869
E-mail: david.baglee@sunderland.ac.uk