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2019 March 12

Composites to take the sea

Russia’s first tank containers made of fiber-reinforced plastic (FRP) are already in pilot operation being used for transportation of chemically aggressive substances by railway/river/road transport. Once the international regulatory framework for their use by seaborne transport is shaped, the demand for FRP tank containers may see a sharp increase. 

It is crucial for domestic companies to get prepared for a serial production of this equipment along with foreign manufacturers.

Due to sustainable production technologies, fiber-reinforced plastic is becoming an alternative to metal. Their application is expanding from year to year. According to the participants of the Conference “Containers and Container Transportations. Topical Matters, Ideas, Solutions” arranged by Russian Maritime Register of Shipping (RS, Register), the most promising niche for application of the new materials is the production of tank containers. They can be used for multimodal transportation of dangerous liquids including chemically aggressive substances for which metal is not efficient.

The technology of FRP goods manufacture is not a new one. Composite materials are in application in different economic segments including transport. However, the process of introduction is not fast due to the necessity to develop new regulations for testing, certification, operation, etc. That is especially true for multimodal transportation of dangerous goods involving seaborne transport where safety requirements are the toughest. 

Admission to the sea

Today, tank containers made of fiber-reinforced plastic are already in use for transportation liquids, chemicals and petrochemicals by road, river and railway transport. However, transportation of such tanks is limited when it comes to sea transportation. “FRP containers are only allowed for sea transportation on short international routes not exceeding 250 miles from the port of departure, provided that they are placed on chassis. The accompanying documents should include a certificate complying with the European Agreement concerning the International Carriage of Dangerous Goods by Road with this equipment to be assigned an IMO 4 type” Ivan Sergeichev, leading researcher of Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, told the conference participants. 

According to Aleksandr Fetisov, Head of RS Container Department, even though this equipment is highly sought on the market of dangerous goods’ transportation, its application is not permitted in international marine transportation due to absence of the necessary international requirements. For addressing the issue, on behalf of the Russian Federation a note was sent to the UN Sub-Committee of Experts on the Transport of Dangerous Goods (TDG Sub-Committee) related to introducing the applicable requirements to the UN Model Regulations and subsequently to the IMO normative documents.

RS Chief Specialist Sergey Dokuchayev says R&D performed in 2016 with a purpose to develop regulations for designing, production, testing and operation of FRP containers served as a basis for a note sent to the UN Sub-Committee of Experts on the 52nd session of TDG Sub-Committee. The document being currently considered by a working group will be reviewed in UN on the 55th session of TDG Sub-Committee in late June – early July 2019. In case of its approval, the work will begin on introduction of requirements on FRP containers to the UN Model Regulations and subsequently to the IMO normative documents: International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code, European Agreement concerning the International Carriage of Dangerous Goods by Road and Regulations Concerning the International Carriage of Dangerous Goods by Rail. This procedure may take up to two years following which FRP containers will be allowed for application by all types of transport without restrictions.

Alternative to metal

The development of a regulatory framework will boost the demand for FRP containers since seaborne transport accounts for the bulk of international transportation. Domestic manufacturers are getting ready to meet the demand for new transport equipment and to compete successfully with foreign manufacturers.
UralVagonZavod concern in cooperation with a number of scientific research organizations and RS has created the first Russian samples of such containers. According to Andrey Abakumov, Department for Development of Civilian Industry Products, JSC “Research and production corporation UralVagonZavod”, new FRP has been developed as well as a technology for production of FRP containers; pilot models have been manufactured and tested.

When enumerating the advantages of FRP containers, Andrey Abakumov mentioned their service life for transportation of aggressive substances extended to 30 years (with temperature ranging between -50 and +60). FRP materials are safer, more flexible when it comes to outside impacts as compared with metal. Besides, covered with chemical-resistant layers such containers can carry any chemically aggressive substance. That also makes the tank cleaning procedure considerably easier and cheaper: water with cleaning agent is enough to wash it without steam cleaning or annual rubber coating  required. The absence of corrosion lets minimize maintenance service costs throughout the life cycle. 

Infotech Baltika M, which tank container fleet accounts for 20% of the total equipment operating in Russia, has been performing pilot operation of a tank containers made of fiber-reinforced plastic from 2016. According to Dmitry Samarkin, Director of the Company’s Technical Department, each tank container has covered the distance of over 40,000 km (including an average of 20,000 km when loaded) having transported more than 300 tonnes of acid liquids. When carrying hydrochloric acid, this equipment has demonstrated positive performance: FRP tanks are easy to operate and maintain, require no additional expenses. “From 2015, foreign companies including Admor Composites, Tankwell and Omni Willig Carbon have been working with the new product (FRP containers). As of today, there are more than 100 FRP containers in operation. No FRP containers have been produced by Russian companies (5 potential manufacturers) after 2016. It’s time to manufacture new containers”, said Dmitry Samarkin.

Readiness for competition

According to the estimates of Ivan Sergeichev, about 20,000 tank containers are in operation in Russia including 5,000 units for Class 8 corrosive goods (oleum, sulfuric acid, water solution of sodium hydrate, hydrochloric acid, etc.) including those requiring heating before discharge as well as liquid and setting DG of Class 3, 6 and 9. 

“Some 10,000 tank containers for chemicals and petrochemicals are to be replaced in the nearest 5 years. Among them are tank containers made of stainless steel which turn into leaky vessels after three years of operation. Our task is to replace this fleet with FRP containers”, said Vitaly Kislicheno, General Director of Russko-Baltiysky Vagonny Zavod JSC. 

Meanwhile, the price of FRP containers is less attractive today as compared with metal ones. According to the market players, a stainless steel tank container of Chinese origin is $30,000 while а FRP one made in Finland is about $50,000. However, the life-cycle cost of products made of composite materials make them a clear choice.  

The conference participants did not reveal the cost of their pilot tank container. “There are no companies ready for serial production of such containers today but there are prerequisites for its organization”, explained Ivan Sergeichev. The main thing now is the generation of demand for this product as the regulatory framework develops. That would give an impetus to creation and development of production facilities. The state could boost it having offered some mechanisms of support to domestic manufactures of innovative equipment. 

“Composites are our future, - believes Vitaly Kislichenko. – Metal goes up in price while composite materials will become cheaper. Uralvagonzavood has already set up production involving imported raw materials – resin, matrix, fiber glass. Yet, there are Russian techniques for replacement of imported fiber glass with local basalts, fire/chemically resistant and strong. However, such materials are not sufficient so far. By 2020, Dubna based Kamenny Vek is going to boost basalt production almost 2-fold to 6,000 tones per year. That will let reduce the cost of FRP goods by a half. “To compete with Chinese manufacturers provided with a 25-pct state aid for exports our authorities should undertake state some support measures to balance the competitive conditions in this segment”, says Vitaly Kislichenko. 

“It is crucial for domestic manufacturers to get prepared for production of competitive goods by the moment when international regulations are approved”, summarized Dmitry Samarkin.

Tatiana Vilde