While many of today's ship engine rooms are equipped with sensor systems to track temperature, pressure, and other engine management processes, lube oil (LO) monitoring sensors have remained somewhat absent from the mix. Recent attempts to address the situation have largely failed because the essential techniques do not exist, and the means to develop these techniques rest with stakeholders outside of the shipping industry.

The eight-member POSSEIDON consortium headed by Martechnic in Germany has resolved this long-standing problem by pooling together specialised knowledge in technology, lubrication, methodology, optics, fluidics and end-user needs and applications. As such, the POSSEIDON sensor-based processing unit represents a new era in shipping technology.

The sensor allows lubricated systems, such as a vessel's main propulsion and power generating engines, to be monitored continuously. The technology specifically checks main LO properties including viscosity, water-in-oil, base number and impurities, and predicts oil degradation and contamination. LO is so important to propulsion and power generating engines that failure has the potential to put a ship, crew, cargo, and the surrounding environment in real danger.

Leading POSSEIDON researcher Dr David Baglee from the University of Sunderland in the UK explained that the main propulsion engine of a ship can circulate 40 tonnes of expensive LO. 'In addition to its normal in-service ageing, [LO] 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,' he said.

'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 everyday a vessel is out of action.'

In addition to avoiding the heavy economic repercussions of vessel failure, the sensor represents an important means to safeguard against oil spills at sea.

The software operates like a traffic light system that alerts crews to take remedial action and maintenance measures before any damage, failure or risk can occur. Importantly, it is also strong enough to withstand a vessel's turbulent operating environment, and does not require specific service or special attention.

Dr Baglee concluded that the technology has the potential to be applied to many other situations. 'This has been a fantastic project, especially as this is the first time Amap (the University of Sunderland's Institute for Automotive and Manufacturing Advanced Practice) [has] been involved in a project with the marine industry,' he pointed out.

'It's been exciting and the possibilities for this software are endless. We are even looking at adapting the software for multi-use in other industries such as wind power.'