First-Ever Spill of 'Frankenstein Fuels' Occurred Last Year, Researchers Find

The environmental effects of the first ever spillage of a new type of marine fuel oil are the subject of a new analysis. This fuel was created in response to regulations that were intended to reduce sulfur emissions from dirty shipping industries. However, it is raising more environmental concerns as it becomes more widespread.

The study was published in Marine Pollution Bulletin on Tuesday. It examines fuel that was spilled in the crash of the bulk carrier, MV Wakashio. This vessel ran aground off the Mauritian coast in the middle of July 2020. The Wakashio started leaking oil from cracks within its hull about a month following the crash. Satellite images showed fuel plumes rising into the Mauritian coastline. This area is home to many marine species that live in its coral reefs, mangrove forests and other areas. The government declared an emergency situation two weeks after the crash.

There has been speculation since the crash that the Wakashio (which had 4,000 tonnes of fuel aboard) was carrying a new type fuel. This is causing concern in the environmental community. The murky response of the government of Mauritus to the disaster did not include any analysis of the type and amount of oil that was spilled. This fueled further speculation.

New research confirms that the residue (8km) taken from the ship's wreck was fuel and was the new low-sulfur fuel. The Wakashio was grounded on a coral reef in late September. There has been much speculation about the source of the oil spilled.

Although it might sound exaggerated, Frankenstein fuels have become a concern for those who monitor the environmental impact of the shipping industry. This term was originally used as a joke to refer to VLSFOs (Very Low Sulfur Fuel Oil), a relatively new fuel mix that is becoming more popular in ships around the globe.

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The International Maritime Organization (IMO), in January 2020, issued new regulations that required shipping companies significantly to reduce the sulfur content of their fuels. This was done to decrease shipping's huge contribution to global air pollution. VLSFOs were quickly favored by the industry due to their low price. VLSFOs have less sulfur than traditional shipping fuels and so it conforms to the IMOs updated guidelines.

VLSFOs are a novel fuel and have raised many chemical questions. They may be able to help reduce sulfur emissions, but also increase other side effects. The Clean Arctic Alliance is a coalition of non-profits, including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the World Wildlife Foundation. It has warned that VLSFOs may make black carbon emissions in the shipping industry even more severe. (Black carbon, also known as plain old soot, is a greenhouse gas that experts say is incredibly damaging to sensitive environmentsespecially the Arcticover the short term.)


VLSFOs were the topic of much discussion after the Wakashio wreck began leaking in Mauritius last August. The new study offers some important answers. First, there is some good news. Researchers found that VLSFO from the ship's wreck contained lower levels of toxic chemicals than traditional shipping fuels, which contain higher levels of sulfur. Scarlett stated that the effects of oil-based toxic chemicals on marine organisms may be less severe than in previous spillages that involved older types.

Scarlett warned that VLSFOs are still relatively new and that the sample could not be used to fully represent the fuel class. We found that some of the other Low Sulfur Fuel Oils contained more toxic components than the oil released in the Mauritius oil spillage. More research is needed to determine if all of the oils within this new class pose less threat to marine ecosystems as heavy fuel oils.


It is crucial to study the effects of this fuel on marine environments and air pollution as increasing numbers of ships are using VLSFOs that comply with the new standards.

Scarlett stated that oil spillages from ships continue to be an issue. Therefore, it is likely that we will see more spillages involving Very Low Sulfur Fuel Oils.