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Using DNA and blockchain to catch bunker cheats

Two ultra-modern technologies, blockchain and synthetic DNA production, are being paired together in a bid to clean up the maritime bunker industry.

Initial trials have been so successful that a joint venture company is now being rolled out by BLOC, a Copenhagen blockchain consultancy, and Forecast Technologies Limited, a company producing traceable synthetic DNA.

BLOC subsidiary Maritime Blockchain Labs has funding from the Lloyd’s Register Foundation to search for ways blockchain technology – immutable transparent digital ledger systems – can be utilised in the maritime industry. One project was in bunker delivery transactions and in 2018 it coordinated tests to bring blockchain technology into bunker delivery paperwork.

For its part Oxfordshire UK-based  Forecast Technologies has been manufacturing synthetic DNA, or artificial genes, for use in other industries.   By adding a small sample of synthetic DNA, known as a tracer, to a fuel stem at the refinery for example, it can be checked at delivery that it is the same stem.

The joint venture the two businesses have formed is called BunkerTrace. FTL Chief Executive Dudley Chapman told Fathom.World that his company was initially looking at how the DNA technology could be used to identify oil spill culprits but following a chance encounter with BLOC realised that there was a bigger opportunity to make a difference.

The bunker industry is noted for its lack of transparency and often circumspect behaviour, with vessels occasionally  being supplied with below standard fuel, fuels that have been mixed with other cheaper fuels, and that could have disastrous consequences. Both FTL and BLOC point to last year’s 2018 Houston incident where a number of vessels were supplied poor standard fuels and then ran into operational problems, as a case in point.

The BunkerTrace solution means there is a secure line of providence that can be easily traced. Sampling at delivery (on the ship) can be done a lot quicker, with the DNA sampling technology that can give results in a couple of hours, showing if there has been any unreported blending or contamination.

BLOC Chief Executive Deanne MacDonald told an audience of insurers and other industry experts that while the BunkerTrace system cannot stop nefarious activity, it will help owners have the confidence that what they order for their vessels is what they get. For the oil majors supplying good quality fuels it is an opportunity for them to demonstrate transparency and that the fuels they supply meet the standards expected.

FTL’s Chapman also points out that there are an almost infinite number of different gene sequences that can be created synthetically so having unique identities for each and every bunker stem supplied is not a problem. This and the longevity of the DNA trace will hep create a robust system.

The difficulty though will be rolling out this into an industry that despite modern changes remains sceptical to change. Experts at the BunkerTrace launch event during London International Shipping Week pointed to some insurance companies and P&I Club remain indifferent, despite the probability that increased proof of providence and transparency will reduce incidents of machinery failure claims. BunkerTrace is also working closely with some major bunkering ports that are interested in making sure their bunker supplies remain the best quality.

With oil majors and other bunker suppliers preparing to meet the January 1st sulphur emission rules there is a concern that the blended or unique products that will come into the market could be contaminated. By having traceability, the consortia believe there will be responsibility.

There are already plans to move the concept further. Chapman points out that the DNA trace technology can be used with gases and other fuels so as shipping looks to biofuels and biogases it can be used to authenticate fuel origins.

About Author

Craig Eason Stockholm
Craig Eason is the owner and editorial director of Fathom.World. He has a background in the shipping industry having started his career as a cadet on oil tankers and gas carriers before becoming a navigating officer on a range of vessel types. A change in career, with ensuing university studies, and he has now gained 20 years experience in written and broadcast journalism. He now is in demand as a knowledgeable and competent editor and event host and moderator, both for in-house events and ones for the public.

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