We need ‘solvent-less’ coatings that perform. Without good performance, then we just do things more often and there is no net gain over time. It’s not just a one-time application. It is to preserve the structure over the service life,” says Johnny Eliasson, hull and coatings expert at Chevron Shipping.

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Call for uniform definition of solvent-free coatings

“The move to solvent-free coatings is a positive step but a holistic, performance-based approach is needed,” says industry veteran Johnny Eliasson, hull and coatings expert at Chevron Shipping: “A clear, science-founded definition based on ISO or NACE standards will benefit the industry as a whole.”

While there are already regulations on the level of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) permitted in coatings, new, stricter regulations are looming. These are expected to require yards to reduce solvent use or install very expensive air pollution capture equipment, so they are looking to paint manufacturers to develop new solvent-free products. 

“Generally speaking, regulations play an important role when it comes to making shipping more sustainable - at the same time, I favour very much the industry stakeholders getting together, and taking a pragmatic approach to solving industry challenges,” says Eliasson. “When it comes to issues around solvent-free coatings or solvent-less as I prefer to call them, I don’t necessarily think this needs IMO involvement, but rather think the matter could be addressed by ISO or NACE standards.” 

Eliasson stresses many in the industry have been anxious to reduce the solvent contents leaking out and causing problems to nature and people for many years, and paint manufacturers’ recent new coatings and new technologies have been very good.  

“But what I have a problem with is substituting solvents for solvents that we don’t count and then call it solvent-free. If they substitute solvents like xylene, for example, which are VOC listed, for benzyl alcohol which, in certain locations in America, is not VOC classed as solvent-free - it’s just switching solvents. Solvents are solvents, some evaporate very slowly such as benzyl alcohol and some quickly, like xylene, but they will still evaporate over time and can cause cracking which will have an effect on the service life.” 

No ‘no solvent’ alternative  

The difficulty comes in bringing in new solvent-less coatings, which would require a new coat every five years, which ends up emitting more solvent over the 20-year lifespan of a ship, Eliasson explains. “We need solvent-less coatings that perform. Without good performance, then we just do things more often and there is no net gain over time. It’s not just a one-time application. It is to preserve the structure over the service life.   

“There are very good formulations out there that have a proven track record over many years, they have performed well, and they should be promoted. We should use the information in the safety data sheet, and we should use that as a guide to find out the composition of the paint. We can then use that data and that will help in the selection process,” adds Eliasson. 

The main course of action needs to be the identification and application of a consistent international standard for coatings which specifies the degree of solvent, Eliasson says. “There’s confusion in the definitions. There is also a need to take a holistic view. It’s great if you can save solvents on application but if it doesn’t last, you just have to apply it many times and there’s a net loss, net damage. 

“The various VOC definitions already in the market are not easy to understand, especially if your company does not have in-house expertise on coatings. The various regulators deciding how the definitions are formulated might not be well informed about paint technology and performance.  

“One alternative that I find relatively good and that is very transparent is the European IED (2010/75/EU). This is based on the formulation of the coating and everything that is defined as a solvent (boiling point <250 deg. C) is defined as a VOC. That said, I still think industry would be better served by having an international, uniform definition,” emphasises Eliasson. 



The big trade-off   

Shipowners must take particular care when evaluating their choice of coating, Eliasson indicates, given that the wrong choice could do more damage, not less. “There is a definite need for stakeholders to be more thorough in their assessment of solvent-free coatings. When it comes to Chevron Shipping and our selection process, I normally go to the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) because the technical data sheet doesn’t always give me what I need. The MSDS, which is closely controlled by legislation, will tell me what kind of solvents are in the paint and that helps me to make a proper evaluation.   

“Not all operators have this option of course so their selection process is perhaps more difficult than mine, so we need to help them by simplifying the definitions and assessment process. For those operators that do not have in-house capacity and competence required to understand coatings properly, then my advice to them is to hire in a specialist consultant. It may cost a few thousand dollars, but they can save millions and reduce safety and environmental risks in the process.   

“You can’t disconnect from performance, and by that I mean the ability of the paint to last for a long time, that’s what matters,” says Eliasson and concludes, “The most environmentally friendly paint is the one that lasts forever. There’s no such thing of course, but that’s the extreme and the closer you get to that, the better environmental and financial performance you get.”

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Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) have been regulated across many industries in the US and Europe for over ten years. Even more stringent regulation is now being formulated around the globe and in particular in South Korea and China with the EU expected to follow suit. Some European countries, notably Germany, have already implemented strict VOC requirements. This means a huge amount of work is being undertaken to ensure that a new generation of suitable products are made available to meet the new requirements.
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Solvent-free coatings have been in existence for several decades, and in the maritime industry these have been targeted at freshwater, potable tanks, ensuring no contamination of drinking water which can happen with solvent-borne coatings. But ballast tanks are subjected to temperature variation and wear and tear from regular ballast operations, and so the requirements are much more demanding.

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