A Guide to Chemical Tanker Types for Palm and Edible Oils


Mar 25, 2021 | Commodity Trading 101

Reading time: 6 minutes

Chemical tankers are vessels able to carry any liquids in bulk, from methanol to vegetable oils. These products require high cleaning standards since the cargo can be quite sensitive, reactive and contain toxic substances (like caustic soda), while the next shipment loaded can be edible oils. However, the cargo’s sensitivity usually determines the coating of tanks aboard the ship, and therefore similar cargo is boarded on ships depending on that criteria. Like bulk carriers, chemical tankers come in various sizes depending on the nature of the shipment, port terminal restrictions, and the usual marine route taken by boats to deliver the goods. As such, the same vessel classification is used for the sizes of tankers, although classification based on the hazardousness is also necessary. This article discusses the hazard type and vessel size classifications and how and why they are used. Moreover, AgFlow’s data will further show how vessel types are used around the world.

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Chemical Tanker Types and Size Classifications

Hazard Classification

Hazard-type classification first characterizes chemical tankers, as chemical tankers’ usage ranges from susceptible chemicals like phosphoric or sulfuric acid, to less dangerous ones like edible oils or crude vegetable oil. The Hazard-type classification breaks down into three distinct categories:

Type 1
Type I is given to tankers destined to transport the most hazardous liquids with potential critical environmental and safety hazards. These liquids require the maximum preventative measures to avoid any leakage of the cargo.

Type 2
These chemical tankers transport liquids with significant environmental and safety hazards requiring important prevention measures of leakage for this type of cargo.

Type 3
Liquid cargo requiring chemical tankers of type 3 have sufficiently serious environmental and safety hazards to enable a moderate degree of containment, aiming to increase the structure’s survivability in case of damage. 

As the most hazardous cargo is limited in quantity and requires extreme caution, most chemical tanker vessels come in type 3 and type 2 classifications.

Moreover, different shipments require a different tank coating. In our case, edible and crude vegetable oils are ‘easier’ cargo and only require epoxy coating. In reality, chemical tankers—particularly larger ones—have several tanks carrying different products. Therefore many vessels with type 1 or type 2 classifications have zinc coating on stainless steel tanks and transport type 3 cargo.

Chemical tankers have to face another critical issue because some cargo—like Palm Oil—must be kept in a specific temperature range during transportation to retain its quality and viscosity (for extraction purposes). Chemical tankers then have a temperature regulator to maintain liquids in the appropriate range, as shown in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1: Bulk Edible and Crude Oils & Fats Transit and Handling Temperature ranges

Courtesy of: cargohandbook.com

Chemical tankers also come in various sizes depending on the geographical location and purpose of the vessel.

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Size Classification

Chemical tankers are also categorized the same way as bulk carriers, using deadweight tonnage (or DWT)— the weight of all content on board— and vessels’ dimensions – including draft (the distance between the ship’s keel and the waterline of the vessel).

The latter is particularly significant as it can limit vessels in certain canals or port terminals. Furthermore, due to the cargo’s nature, deadweight tonnage for chemical tankers is lower than for bulk carriers. 

With the requirements necessary for hazard protection, there is an extensive range of ships built by different shipbuilding companies with various dimensions and cargo capacity. As such, it is challenging to determine fixed conventions for each vessel type.

Figure 2: Vessel Size Classification by Deadweight Tonnage

Coaster Tankers

Coaster chemical tankers serve the same purpose as their bulk carrier counterparts. They operate within domestic waters in which they are registered or internationally in cabotage trading operations. Coasters have a small cargo capacity and a flat or flattened bottom to compensate for the low draft necessary to navigate shallow waters. There isn’t a specified minimum and maximum deadweight tonnage for Coaster chemical tankers. Still, it is reasonable to say they fall within the same bracket as Coaster bulk carriers, although bigger coaster builds usually don’t exceed 12’000 mt DWT.

Handysize Tankers

Handysize vessels are part of the Handy class of vessels. They operate in international waters for deep-sea trading. Therefore, they have a deeper draft, are larger, and can carry more cargo. They fall within 15’000 to 60’000 maximum DWT due to the broad definition. However, Handysize vessels mainly refer to vessels between 15’000 and 35’000 DWT.  It is also common that they carry different shipments at the same time of varying nature. Since some edible and crude vegetable oils need heating to preserve their quality or viscosity, logistic work to clean and prepare them is necessary – if the tank previously contained another group of liquid on the previous voyage, for example – and to segregate groups to prevent hazards.

Handymax and Supramax Tankers

Handymax is the second-largest class of Handysize class vessels, and Supramax is the largest one. These vessels have the same particularities as Handysize chemical tankers but differ in size.  Handymax can transport more cargo and have between 52’000 and 58’000 DWT. Supramax are even larger and have up to 60’000 DWT. One critical remark is that — although we use the same classification— Handy class chemical tankers don’t necessarily have the same characteristics as their bulk carrier counterparts. Therefore, this classification refers more to ships’ deadweight tonnage than dimensions or particular features (like the cranes).

Panamax Tankers

Panamax is a class of vessels between 60’000 and 80’000 DWT that have precise dimensions to fit through the Panama Canal in Central America. Panamax dimensions have a maximum length of 294.13 m (965 ft), the beam (or width) must be 32.31 m(106 ft) at most, and the draft must not exceed 12.04 m (41.2 ft). Since 2014 with new, modern locks in the canal, Neo-Panamax vessels (or Post-Panamax) have new dimensions. However, these types of ships are still very new and designed to be bulk carriers.

What AgFlow’s Data says about Chemical Tanker Types and Sizes

AgFlow records freight data and vessel tracking with trade flows. Both of these products yield insight into the usage of chemical tankers across the world.

Figure 3: Minimum and Maximum Cargo by Vessel Size

Figure 3 shows the minimum and maximum size of cargo tracked on freight data. This data shows that actual cargo loaded doesn’t necessarily fit within the limitations described in Figure 2. Panamax quotes data are only for small cargoes. This means that either the tank’s volumes are limited, or traders don’t load a whole ship with their cargo. 

This raises the question of the frequency of each vessel type for Edible and Crude vegetable (most often Palm) Oils transportation.

Figure 4: Freight Quote Distribution of Chemical Tanker Vessel Size Types

The distribution of freight quotes for chemical tankers available on AgFlow’s database clearly shows that Panamax and Coaster vessel types are the most quoted, and by extent the largest chemical tankers type fleets. Handymax, on the other hand, is marginal.

Therefore, although shipment volumes for Panamax are small, there is a large demand for these types of vessels. Moreover, the demand for Coasters vessels show that the trade flows are important within domestic seas and neighbouring countries with cabotage trading.

Figure 5: Indonesia to India Palm Oil Voyages Between April 2020 and March 2021

AgFlow’s trade flows data provide a  good example of chemical tankers’ usage. The voyage data in Figure 5 displays the maximum and average shipment size of Palm Oil shipments from Indonesia to India. The numbers at the bottom of the bars indicate the number of voyages for the month.

The graph highlights that, although there are large shipments, corresponding to Handysize vessels, the average vessel size type is Coasters. Additionally, there is no correlation between the number of voyages and the average shipment size. Thus, when there is more cargo to transport, traders and freight companies don’t necessarily opt for larger chemical tanker vessels.

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Chemical Tankers In a Nutshell

In order to transport goods, chemical tankers need to have the proper IMO hazard classification of either type 1, 2, or 3. Depending on the voyage, chemical tankers have different sizes. Within domestic waters they are registered and for cabotage trading coaster vessels are used for transportation. The other size class vessels -namely Handysize, Handymax, Supramax, and Panamax – transport liquids, including edible oils and crude vegetable oils, for deep-sea trading across continents and countries. Moreover, edible and crude vegetable crude oils may require heating during transportation and handling at the port terminal while others don’t. As such, freighters are required to use compatibility charts to organize the logistics of the ship’s voyage.

AgFlow’s data then showed that Panamax and Coaster vessels are prized by traders to transport the goods, and as such they are the two most quoted types of chemical tankers. Thus, domestic and cabotage trading are also an import part of edible and crude vegetable oils transportation, and trading, as indicated by the voyage data.

Finally, chemical tankers are particular types of ships and their build differs from that of bulk carriers. However, it is possible for bulk carriers to be refitted and transformed into chemical tankers. As such, these ships represent a new opportunity to transport liquids, as well as having different builds and cargo capacity than usual chemical tankers.

Read also: Incoterms Guide (2020)

Read also: A guide to Bulk Carriers Types for Agricultural Commodities

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