Driving Today

Fuel of the Future?

Will the stuff that makes spray paint come out of an aerosol can soon power your car?

Up until now, dimethyl ether (or DME) has made a name for itself (if it has made a name for itself at all) as an environmentally friendly aerosol propellant used in consumer products. But DME might also have a big future as the transportation fuel that replaces gasoline and diesel. Why? Because it is a clean-burning fuel that can be derived from natural gas, which is more abundant than ever before, thanks to new drilling techniques.

The proponents of DME, among them a San Diego-based company called Oberon Fuels, say the potential fuel generates almost no particulate matter and produces ultra-low levels of smog-causing nitrogen oxides (or NOx). It also burns cleaner than diesel and provides improved engine performance, so it could provide an alternative-fuel solution that is cost-effective, environmentally friendly and easy to adopt. Pretty soon we’ll see if all these rosy predictions can be realized because Oberon Fuels has agreed with Southern California Gas Company to design and construct the first commercial facility in the United States to produce natural gas for use as a transportation fuel.

The joint demonstration project is first targeting the “return-to-base” trucking segment, trucks that go out in the morning, make their deliveries and then return to the same location for refueling and restocking. That kind of use should jibe well with the planned demonstration facility that will use Oberon’s proprietary technology 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. Potentially you could have one in your driveway.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, there are nearly 11 million medium- and heavy-duty trucks operating in the United States. Several truck manufacturers have been testing new DME-fueled trucks for several years, reportedly with excellent results, and existing diesel trucks can be retrofitted for DME with only modest modifications. It could be the wave of the future and make us forget all about hydrogen as a fuel.



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