A new research and development agreement in California could turn the Los Angeles area into the first commercial market for dimethyl ether (DME) as a transportation fuel.
Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas) and Oberon Fuels, a low-emissions alternative fuels company, will jointly work on research and development of the first commercial DME facility in the U.S. The facility will be located in Southern California and will produce DME, which when combusted in an optimized engine can produce a clean fuel.
“SoCalGas is committed to supporting the development and deployment of clean alternative transportation fuels,” said Hal D. Snyder, vice president of customer solutions for SoCalGas. “Fifty-five billion gallons of diesel fuel are consumed annually in the United States, and the trucking industry is looking for cost-effective solutions that meet the rigorous air quality standards and support the common goal of cleaner air. Using natural gas as a feedstock for DME is just another environmentally beneficial use for natural gas, an abundant, cost effective and domestic fuel. We see DME as complimentary to other natural gas transportation solutions.”
The project will use Oberon’s technology and processes to mix natural gas with carbon dioxide to produce DME “in small-scale, skid-mounted modular units that will produce 3,000 to 6,000 gallons of DME per day,” the companies said.
According to a press release about the project, DME is an attractive fuel source because it “generates almost no particulate matter and produces ultra-low levels of smog-causing nitrogen oxides, or NOx.”
“We see great potential for widespread use of DME as a cleaner substitute for diesel and propane,” said Neil Senturia, chief executive officer for Oberon Fuels. “We believe DME can be a key element in the overall solution to clean transportation in this country.”
According to the International DME Assn., the use of DME in trucks requires only “modest modifications” to engines and running a vehicle on DME results in “ultra-low emissions, no particulate matter, low CO2 emissions, low engine noise, high fuel economy, and ignition characteristics equivalent to diesel engine performance.”With characteristics similar to propane, there are questions as to whether DME can crack the North America market and become a viable fuel source, and if so, how much of a dent could it really make. But, as we try to wean ourselves off of foreign oil, any and all potential solutions are welcome.
In the end, the fact the SoCal Gas and Oberon are undertaking this project is a positive step, but if there is no support for the project from the trucking community, DME may burn out relatively quickly.