Floating a good idea

Protected: the Floating Harbour Transhipper provides a covered environment Protected: the Floating Harbour Transhipper provides a covered environment

Chasing deep draft development could be a thing of the past for future bulk ports, as Stevie Knight reports

Is there a chance that bulk might buck the trend toward chasing depth? One concept might even go as far as challenging some long-term deep water bulk plans.

“Instead of hauling bulk several hundred kilometres up to a large port only to get stuck waiting, why not build a smaller facility right next to production, float an offshore hub to receive the big ships closer to home and feed it with shallow draft vessels?” asks Ross Ballantyne of SeaTransport.

Evolving from a very simple base - the lightering crane barge – the idea is already well established in places like Indonesia which has hundreds of hubs floating around its island coastlines: other countries like Vietnam, Thailand, South America Australia and West Africa are now considering bringing the strategy home.

“There’s a massive incentive for countries that are relatively cash poor. The days of flashy status developments have long gone, and many places now just want to get their goods to market the quickest, most economical way possible,” says David Bull of OSC.

 

Moveable feats

Mr Ballantyne and Mr Bull both add that floating hubs have another attraction: they are moveable – and as occasional political instability sometimes goes along with mineral riches, “being able to up-anchor makes for safer investment”, says Mr Bull.

However, sophisticated solutions might spread the appeal to more developed regions: Mr Ballantyne explains that Floating Harbour Transhipper (FHT) provides a completely covered operation that discharges the feeders into ‘negative pressure’, to alleviate spillage and dust concerns, but most importantly it comes with its own particular feeder vessels that are tailored to fit snugly inside the well dock. This gives it a big, broad operating window that can cope with a whopping 4.5 metre sea and up to 30 knot winds with 50 knot gusts; “the kind of environment you often find around latitudes closer to the poles”.

While it means that the FHT isn’t open to all comers as it needs its own daughter craft to feed it, the FHT can keep going when other floating operations have long shut up shop.

Mr Ballantyne adds that it’s not just ‘junior minors’ or other smaller players that haven’t got access to the big ports that could benefit. The curse of shallow water has resulted in smaller ports getting caught between the heavy time and investment costs of capital dredging against the price of staying still, with little on a sliding scale that guarantees a safe return.

 

Cheap capacity

So, some facilities could benefit from a cheap and cheerful capacity upgrade. Mr Ballantyne explains: “The best thing about this offshore hub idea is that there’s minimal-to-no dredging and the environmental approvals for a small, shallow draft harbour are much quicker: as it doesn’t need much more than sinking a hole in the ground and opening it up to the sea, you could have it going inside a couple of years.”

Plus it’s economical: he estimates that the price of a complete facility could work out to as little as a seventh of an equivalent per-tonne landside development.

However Mr Bull points out this does add an extra step, so clever pricing might be necessary to keep the hub attractive despite the double-handling. He goes on to say: “Where these hubs really make sense is in places like Southern Borneo, where you have the export bulk on a barge already as it comes down river, so there’s no problem in bypassing the port entirely and going straight out to the floating hub.”

Still, how does it stack up against the landside projects? It’s fast enough: speeds can be around 10,000 tonnes per hour discharge and Mr Ballantyne points out that the ship isn’t subject to the usual dramas of berthing slots, loading times and demurrage as the whole thing ticks on with the two areas, the feeder and the export side, working at their own rate on a continuous schedule. The FHT is scaled to be able to hold 60% of the load of the main visiting ship, “so for capesize ships it means the stockpile area is around 110,000 tonnes, with the rest being provided by straight feeder-to-ship transfer”, he adds.

 

Complications

However, the receiving end isn’t simply a mirror image of the export side, with complications that span from the number of interested parties to government policy. Still, it seems that offshore hubs can find a role even here, and interestingly, the idea has already been instrumental in getting around at least one instance of import politics as well as shallow draft.

Just a couple of years ago Vale decided to invest in the world’s largest ore carriers, with the idea of both reducing Australia’s location advantage in relation to Asia and removing Vale’s exposure to freight market fluctuations. All this was initiated “only to find out that despite the fact that some ports could accommodate the so-called Valemax or Chinamax ships, the Chinese didn’t actually want them to come in, probably unwilling to see the supply chain dominated by just one player”, says Mario Terenzio of Logmarin Advisors.

Whatever the story, the port authority suddenly denied the vessel entrance on draft principles as the very first ship was halfway through its crossing with the first cargo load. Needless to say, although this original vessel was diverted to Italy, it still meant problems for the other 35 ships at that point under construction.

Vale called Logmarin to develop ‘Plan B’ which took the form of the Ore Fabrica. Initially the facility was only seen as a temporary transhipment point “to lighten the Valemaxes as it was believed the Chinese ban on the huge carriers would be lifted”, he says.

Temporary or not, it took effort to decide where to moor the hub: “We had to find a place close to China with space enough and depth for a loaded draft of 23m; it had to be relatively sheltered from typhoons and other extreme weather to run all year, plus the local authority had to allow such a big operation,” explains Mr Teranzio. The Philippines’ Subic Bay Freeport was one of the few spots that fulfilled the requirements.

It was a good choice, allowing the idea to take root so now two of Vale’s three current Asian transhipment points are offshore hubs with Subic Bay itself seeing about 25m tonnes of cargo per annum pass through its anchorages.

 

Horses for courses

Design is, as always, a matter of ‘horses for courses’. While the Ore Fabrica’s grab operation is fairly low tech and won’t handle much beyond 1.5 or 2m significant wave height, it is flexible enough to welcome in a broad range of feeder vessels from all parties. On the other hand, the FHT is capable of truly huge weather windows and once inside the well dock, it’s daughter feeders will only feel 5% or 10% of the pitching, heaving and rolling motion of those on the outside, but it’s a much more tailored design, suited to big but limited scope operations.

Whatever the project specification, the idea looks set to be of growing interest, especially for bulk previously stymied by its route to market.

 

Taking transhipment up the river

The development of offshore transhipment hubs may be within the grasp of river ports.

Places as diverse as Africa, Vietnam, Central Europe, Canada, South America and the US have a number of shallow draft bulk facilities sitting on very long waterways. “These rivers often have very restricted depth near the shore while further out into the flow it gets much deeper,” points out Mario Terenzio.

The idea may be useful for some very productive crop regions which do have nearby water, but that so far have suffered from the lack of economy of scale. Despite the potential, there are issues when it comes to loading grains and other bulk, so although Logmarin is putting together some ideas for a grain transhipment project it is by necessity a much more complex operation, needing more space, division between the piles, strict quality control “and a huge amount of operational flexibility to allow the hub to pay for itself”.

Mr Ballantyne, Mr Bull and Mr Teranzio all agree that bulk generally has limited margins to play with and the supply chain is one of the few parameters that can make a difference: “A few cents per tonne can swing the competitiveness of the product,” says Mr Bull.

But this means, says Mr Teranzio, realism and a change in thinking: “Traditional engineering has to adapt to the new economy. Past projects often meant big infrastructure and equally big costs; in this market you need first and foremost a careful study of the bottlenecks and opportunities, and to test out the value of the solution with a dynamic simulation. It’s very important to spend the right money.”

 

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