Volvo Trucks has ambitious plans for dimethyl ether (DME), which is more familiarly known as a propellant for spray-on cosmetics rather than a power juice for big rigs. Yesterday the company announced that it plans to commercialize DME for use in trucks and other vehicles by 2015, but for those of you who are familiar with DME don’t get too excited. Although DME is a super-clean fuel that can be made from non-food biofuel feedstocks, it is typically synthesized from natural gas, and that appears to be the focus of Volvo’s attention, at least for now.
Volvo’s Excellent DME Adventure
DME (aka methoxymethane) is a colorless, nontoxic gas similar to propane. It can be converted to liquid form with relative ease, which in terms of vehicle fuel gives it a potential advantage over natural gas.
More to the point, DME is a clean-burning fuel that produces very little emissions and none of the fine particles characteristic of diesel emissions, while matching diesel in terms of performance and energy efficiency.
So, what’s the catch? The U.S. Department of Energy,’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory has been noodling around with DME a bit in support of a project spearheaded by Penn State University that was initiated back in the 1990’s, but the fuel doesn’t mesh with the Obama Administration’s focus on drop-in fuels that can substitute for petroleum without requiring engine modification.
That hasn’t stopped Volvo Trucks. Yesterday’s announcement boiled down to an announcement that Volvo Trucks is the first North American manufacturer to announce plans to produce DME vehicles in 2015 (seriously lame in terms of announcements, but whatever), so apparently the company anticipates enough interest from fleet owners to make the venture worth its while.
Considering Volvo’s growing body of experience in natural gas vehicles, the new focus on DME also provides more evidence of a gradual, companywide shift away from its historic focus on diesel fuel.
To Biofuel Or Not To Biofuel
So, what about DME biofuel? Up front in yesterday’s press release, Volvo makes a big deal about the potential for producing DME from a wide variety of renewable feedstocks including waste from food processors, wastewater treatment facilities and landfill gas.
It’s also worth noting that the University of Minnesota has partnered on a project to produce DME from biomass with Volvo as well as GM.
However, Volvo’s press release goes on to dwell on “North America’s abundant supply of natural gas,” touting conversion to liquid DME as a more efficient means of growing the U.S. natural gas transportation and distribution infrastructure for vehicle fuel.
That’s all well and good, but there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. Although natural gas wins over petroleum and especially coal in terms of lower emissions at the burn point, the current natural gas fracking boom has opened a whole new can of worms all along the natural gas lifecycle.
That includes methane leakage from gas fields and other points, which could be significant enough to cancel out natural gas’s advantage over coal in terms of greenhouse gas management (despite what Exxon has to say on the matter), fracking waste disposal issues, water contamination risks and even earthquakes, among other impacts.
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