Last week we noted that Volvo Trucks is betting on the fuel DME (dimethyl ether) as a super-clean alternative to diesel, and the company will soon launch a line of vehicles for the US market designed specifically to run on the stuff. We also noticed a catch, though. DME can be produced from natural gas as well as biogas, and right now Volvo seems to be quite excited by the nonrenewable part of the equation, at least as far as the US market is concerned. On the other hand, Volvo’s fuel partner in the US, Oberon Fuels, has just received a grant to run a biogas-to-DME project in California, which could hint at healthy role for biogas in DME’s future.
What’s So Bad About Natural Gas?
For those of you who are new to the topic, there is no question that natural gas beats other fossil fuels in terms of greenhouse gas emissions when burned. However, in terms of lifecycle emissions and other impacts related to the drilling method called fracking (short for hydraulic fracturing, which involves pumping a chemical brine underground) the gas industry has some serious ‘splaining to do.
Evidence has been mounting about significant local impacts from natural gas fracking and related fracking waste issues including water contamination and earthquakes as well as community disruption related to truck traffic, noise and the introduction of industrial activity in non-industrial areas.
A growing body of evidence is also beginning to hint that methane leakage from natural gas fields could contribute to significant lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions that cancel out any advantage natural gas has at the burn point.
That’s why we give DME produced from natural gas the stinkeye, at least until more is known about the role that the natural gas production lifecycle plays in greenhouse gas emissions, and until there is a more reliable regulatory framework for addressing local impacts.
The Road To Renewable DME
The use of renewable feedstocks presents an altogether different picture, and Oberon Fuels checked in with CleanTechnica earlier this week to remind us that its DME production system does indeed produce the fuel from both natural gas and renewable biogas feedstocks that are generated by the decomposition of agricultural waste and other biomass.
As we noted earlier, the company has engineered modular DME production systems that can be located at or near the source of the feedstock, which reduces greenhouse gas emissions related to biomass transportation.
For large farms, that transportation benefit gets doubled. Oberon cites the example of a sugar beet producer, which generates a large amount of agricultural waste. The waste can go to a regional Oberon DME facility right nearby, and the fuel can go right back to the farm to power trucks and agricultural equipment such as tractors and pumps.
A Pilot Project For Renewable DME
That brings us to the DME pilot project, for which Oberon received a grant of $500,000 from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.
Announced earlier this month, the project pairs Oberon and Volvo Trucks with supermarket giant Safeway, Inc., to run heavy duty trucks on DME produced from renewable feedstock including agricultural waste and post-consumer food waste. It’s starting off with two trucks, which doesn’t sound all that exciting, but given Safeway’s previous experience with renewable fuel and the fact that it has an enormous fleet servicing its 1,641 stores, there is an enormous potential for growth.
That’s all well and good, but while we’re taking another look at Oberon’s website we notice that there is another potential market for the company’s modular DME facilities, and that is the harvesting of “stranded” natural gas from remote locations. Until the regulatory framework tightens up, expanding that market is going to introduce natural gas fracking into new areas and new communities, and add another area of concern to the growing list of risks and impacts.