Using Dimethyl Ether as Fuel for heat, Transportation and Electricity

Dateline Today: Longueuil, Quebec 2015

[From the Montreal Gazette] On Wednesday, January 14th, about 28,000 liters of diesel fuel spilled at the city’s water filtration plant. Although most of the fuel went into the St-Lawrence River, due to a crack in the sewer line some of it ended up in the water treatment plant. Even though this was a serious problem it was still several hours until the provincial environment department was notified. The water advisory affected about 300,000 people in Vieux Longueuil, St-Hubert, Boucherville and St-Bruno-de-Montarville.

Reporting by the Montreal Gazette (Jan 15, 2015) gives voice to South Shore residents who were dissatisfied with how the Longueuil water department handled the spill. Several residents have taken up legal action, and on Monday a lawyer representing them filed papers requesting permission to sue the city for around $29 million, or $100 each for the 288,100 residents affected by the water contamination caused by the spill.

Although the leak was noticed by municipal officials about 4 a.m. last Wednesday, the city didn’t put out a no-drinking advisory until about 10 a.m. on Thursday. This is far too long to wait to notify residents says Lawyer Jacky-Éric Salvant. The lawsuit could also extend to Environment Canada and the private company that owns the Longueuil pumping station, he said.

By Friday the tap water had finally been announced to be drinkable, but due to it still smelling and tasting of diesel in some areas the city continued to distribute bottled water.

Caroline St-Hilairem, the Mayor of Longueuil, announced on Sunday that a full investigation into the debacle would take place, and was backed up by her Director of Communications Bernard Bigras, who said there will be at least two: one into the spill itself, and one into how it was handled. The City will conduct an investigation alongside Environment Quebec. Bigras also mentioned an investigation by the federal government but was unsure as to when the reports would be completed.

Dateline Today: Greenville, South Carolina 2015

[From WSPA] Wednesday (February 17th, 2015), a fuel spill on Tuesday morning that caused gallons of oil to seep into an upstate riverbed will be investigated by the Environmental Protection Agency. The spill was first noticed when diesel fuel was seen leaking out of a storm drain and into Brushy Creek behind Greenville Shriners Hospital for Children. The hospital tracked the source of the leak to an underground fuel holding tank.

They are our backup systems for our boilers for heating and air. We have a spill plan and so we've been working with the environmental engineers, DHEC, Hazmat and we're just going to continue to work with them to see what our next steps are and how we go about taking care of this issue.

Randy Risser, Business Development Director for the hospital

The tank had to be drained and work undertaken with the help of state agencies, including the Department of Health and Environmental Control, to contain and clean up the spill.

There haven’t always been such measures in place. The hospital was penalized back in 2013 by the EPA the hospital didn’t have an adequate spill plan, and as recent as 2010 did a similar spill occur which contaminated both Brushy Creek and the Reedy River. The DHEC has confirmed that this latest spill has sent fuel as far as the Conastee Lake, and has required the fire department to drop collection booms downstream in order to prevent it from entering water treatment plants.

Diesel Power at the Fork in the Road

By providing electricity to the most remote locations including islands, the North and South poles, and other places across the world, the diesel engine has been a key invention in human history. Diesel engines are used globally for trucking, shipping and rail transportation, along with any other mode that needs efficient and reliable power. No other technology can cover such a diverse range of applications. Out of any standard internal or external combustion power source, the diesel engine has the highest thermal efficiency. With a high compression ratio and inherent lean burn, the engine allows heat dissipation by intake of excess air which makes for an incredibly simple power source.

However, there are many problems associated with the continued use of diesel as a fuel. It emits greenhouse gases and particulate matter that degrade the environment, and foster dependence on volatile Middle East oil reserves. Diesel has an expiry date, it can gel in low temperatures, can get water logged and separates over time. It is poisonous to plants and animals, pollutes water and soil if leaked into it, necessitates layers of anti-pollution devices and can use up to 8 liters of purified, fresh water for each liter of diesel produced. Today, the compression engine is a great power source that comes with a problematic fuel.

New Tier 4 Diesel Standard

On January 1st, 2015, in response to mounting concern about the negative impact diesel fuel was having on health and the environment the world moved to the Tier 4 diesel standard. Under Tier 4 standards truck, marine and off-road diesels must incorporate anti-pollution devices to decrease emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide and particulate matter. These devices make diesel power more expensive and less reliable & efficient. Furthermore, the additional particulate filters and selective catalytic reduction systems demand increased monitoring and maintenance. The bottom line is that these new clean diesel engines are more expensive and less efficient.

Dimethyl Ether – Keep the Engine, Change the Fuel

The challenge is to find a fuel for compression engines that is environmentally friendly, stores easily and transported simply. A number of well-established processes mean Dimethyl Ether can be readily synthesized from abundant natural gas and biomass feedstock. It is benign, evaporates after a spill, burns smoke free with no sulfur and reduced nitrous oxide, and generates 1 to 2 liters of water for each liter of fuel produced. Unlike compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquid natural gas (LNG), most importantly, DME can be used in compression engines, which substantially impacts the potential applications of this fuel over LNG, CNG, Ethanol or Methanol. Finally, a clean-burning, high-density liquid fuel that can directly replace diesel fuel in most of its current applications.

Figure 1. Dimethyl Ether is a multi-purpose fuel and solvent with 10 Million tonnes of global capacity.

Most global markets offer DME at a structurally lower price than diesel, and this price gap is only expected to remain or even increase as diesel prices stay significantly higher than those of shale produced natural gas on an energy equivalent basis. This presents an excellent opportunity for fuels derived from methane to gain an increased market share. Production of DME is also inviting for markets with minimal local petroleum sources but abundant in natural gas such as Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia.

Figure 2. Dimethyl Ether can be produced at or below cost in most nations, in particularly countries without oil.

DME also benefits from being non-toxic and environmentally low risk; accidental spills cannot poison water, it will not sink into the water table and it will not be absorbed by the soil. Another clear advantage over diesel or other marine fuels DME isn’t poisonous to aquatic life. If it was used over diesel, the fallout from the disastrous 2014 Galveston Bay spill and the poisonous 2015 Longueuil spill would have been greatly reduced.

Clean Tech Competition

There are currently several competitors to DME that have been introduced to the American market including compressed natural gas (CNG), liquid natural gas (LNG), methanol, synthetic diesel and hydrogen. Volvo Trucks have recently completed an extensive study of alternative fuels, and over the seven criteria, DME came out on top as the choice for an advanced fuel truck.

Table 1. Fuel Comparison (Sourced from Volvo).

Projected North American DME Market by 2024   Notes
# Of Combination (Tractor Trailer) Trucks in U.S.
# Of Combination (Tractor Trailer) Trucks in Canada
Total U.S. and Canadian Combination (Tractor Trailer) Trucks
Average Annual U.S. Diesel Fuel Consumption Per Truck (in Gallons)
Average Annual Canadian Diesel Fuel Consumption Per Truck (in Gallons)
Total Annual U.S. Diesel Fuel Consumption (in Gallons)
Total Annual Canadian Diesel Fuel Consumption (in Liters)
Total Annual Canadian Diesel Fuel Consumption (in Gallons)
Avg. U.S. Diesel Retail Price Per Gallon (including all taxes) as of 3/3/14
Avg. Canadian Diesel Retail Price Per Liter (including all taxes) as of 3/4/14 in US$
Estimated Annual Retail Cost of Diesel Consumed by Combination Trucks in the U.S.
Estimated Annual Retail Cost of Diesel Consumed by Combination Trucks in Canada
Estimated Annual Retail Cost of Diesel Consumed by Combination Trucks by Both
Green Trucks in 2024 with fleet growth of 0.5% CAGR with 20% of the fleet Green
DGE Consumed per Truck (gallons/year by each truck using 20% efficiency gain)
DGE Price per Gallon (USD/gal.)
Green Fleet Fuel Market
DME Market for Class 8 Trucks in 2024 at 40% the Green Fleet



Due to its high cetane number, DME can be used in compression ignition engines which are more energy efficient and powerful than spark-ignition engine vehicles. Along with CNG and LNG, DME used in a heavy-duty natural gas engine would produce drastically lower NOx and particulate emission levels than diesel.

However, while neither LNG nor CNG can be used in a compression engine, DME can, as well as spark ignition, diesel, turbine and fuel cell engines. Compressed natural gas is relatively common at gas fueling stations, where it is compressed on site, but liquefied natural gas is less widely available. LNG is mostly used by fleets that have the dedicated infrastructure in place, with only several large-scale liquefaction plants manufacturing LNG fuel for transportation nationwide. This LNG requires custom-built, truck-hauled tankers to be delivered.

What is preventing compression ignition engines from being more widely used are the problems in reducing the levels of NOx and particulate matter to levels acceptable to public health bodies worldwide. These standards are ever tightening as more studies are published on the harmful nature of these substances. The difficulties in emission reduction do not exist in the case of DME, in fact, DME and propane can fuel all engine sizes, from lawn mowers to the largest container ships.

“DME engines run cleaner and produce low levels of NOx Emissions and Particulate Matter.”

Dimethyl ether combustion generates essentially no particulate matter (PM) because of the absence of C-C bonds and sulfur compounds, and so does not form soot after combustion. This brings it under the category of particulate free fuels which also includes hydrogen, methanol and some carbonates.

Moreover, reduced NOx emissions can be achieved using much less complicated or even without tailpipe emission control technologies. These pollution control advantages would allow a transition to fuel-efficient vehicles such as compression ignition engine/hybrid electric vehicles. The issues surrounding wholesale and retail can be solved simultaneously as DME gas is stored in mildly pressurized canisters such as those required for propane above -25 °C. Simply put, DME and propane can use the same storage, transportation and transfer technology globally.

Figure 3. Simple Production of DME from Natural Gas or Methanol

Dimethyl Ether for Generators

The diesel genset is one of the cheapest and most reliable distributed power technologies available today. It has expanded opportunities among homeowners and commercial facilities including: hospitals, water treatment plants and data centers that require mission-critical power in the event of a grid outage. Navigant Research recently commissioned a report on worldwide revenue from diesel gensets, and it is expected to reach $41.2 Billion by 2018. The report also determined that global installed base of gensets will have an annual power sales of 82 GWe, equivalent to the production of 22% of the world’s nuclear reactor capacity.

As countries such Nigeria, India, Chile, and South Africa continue to experience strong economic and population growth, existing infrastructure can’t keep up with the pace and blackouts are common: this drives up diesel genset sales. The scale and length of these blackouts mean industries in India, for example, have become highly dependent on diesel as power outages can span up to 16 hours per day, making them more vulnerable to fuel price volatility and supply.

The demand for new generator sets for any particular region is based on numerous factors, including the electrification ratio of the particular region, emission regulations, economic growth and grid reliability.

As the market grows, competition is only increasing as participants worldwide try to seize a larger share of the global diesel genset market.

The demand for diesel genset will only mount as rising population, increasingly unreliable grid infrastructure and continuous investments in infrastructure-related projects continue to be a factor over the next 5 years. Governments are also enacting more stringent emission regulations in response to concerns over the environment, which will require end users to come up with more environmentally friendly solutions to meet Tier 4, MARPOL VI and Euro 6 regulations.

Sales of alternative fuel gensets totaled just over $800 million in 2013, making up approximately 2.4% of total market sales. These are projected to experience high growth (a CAGR of 8.2%) over the next five years. Examples of alternative fuels include solid waste landfill gas, agricultural waste biogas, flare gas from oil drilling, seam gas from mining coal deposits, dimethyl ether and biodiesel. In places where the supply of diesel or natural gas is limited, alternative fuel generator sets offer added value. In other instances, alternative fuel synthesized from existing waste gas sources and used with a genset to produce electricity can dramatically lower the total energy costs of the end user.

Over the next decade, the increase in atypical gas resources and more stringent emissions regulations for stationary generators will favor clean-burning dimethyl ether and other clean fuels systems over their traditional diesel counterparts in North and South America. Moreover, virtual power plants can leverage distributed generation unit supplied with easy to store dimethyl ether, by utilizing distributed energy resources via software systems.

In particular, the drive to integrate variable generation resources, especially wind and solar into the grid, is resulting in viable virtual power plants, microgrids and island grids that will see impressive growth over the next several years and be worth $3.6 Billion in 2020 compared with $1 Billion now. The growth in distributed, renewable power generation sources requires additional supply and demand flexibility to accommodate fast ramping periods and corresponding supply forecast error. Virtual power plants and microgrids represent an ideal optimization platform for the evolving transformation of the power grid. Dimethyl ether powered gensets will be the cornerstone technology for future clean microgrids.

Dimethyl Ether for Transportation

After decades of investment in DME engine technology Volvo will introduce it to selected markets in North America during early 2018. Their modified 13 Liter Volvo/Mack (VNL 300 DME) diesel engines run on DME at higher compression ratios and make less noise than conventional engines. Running on DME the trucks will eliminate emission of particulate matter, reduce vibration and minimize nitrous oxides generated by conventional diesel engines. As well as this, the engines can be more efficient, have better wheel-to-wheel costs and reduced emissions when compared to conventional diesels. The fuel costs will also be lower as DME is not derived from oil, but from natural gas, coal or biomass via a constantly improving process.

Figure 4. Volvo DME VNL 300 Truck at the Whitehouse

For marine applications, MAN Diesel & Turbine has developed DME engines. The ME-LGI concept is an entirely new system that can be applied to all MAN Diesel & Turbo low-speed engines, either ordered as an original unit or through retrofitting. With two new injection concepts, the ME-LGI concept greatly expands the company’s multi-fuel portfolio and enables the utilization of more low-flash-point fuels such as DME and propane.

The ME-LGI came about due to a desire from shipping interests to operate on alternatives to heavy fuel oil (HFO) and diesel. Propane carriers have already operated at sea for many years and many more propane tankers are currently being built as the global propane infrastructure grows. As the transportation mechanism is similar, the same ship can carry propane and DME. With a viable, convenient and comparatively cheap fuel already onboard, it makes sense to use a fraction of the cargo to power the vessel with a crucial side-benefit of being better for the environment. MAN Diesel & Turbo states that it is already working towards a Tier-III-compatible ME-LGI version, which can easily run on DME.

Table 2. Fuel Sales and Market Size

Fuel Test Criteria X Fuel Names Ignition System Rating
Scores are a sum of the criteria:        
Climate Impact   DME Compression 28.5
Energy Efficiency   Methanol Spark 27.5
Land Use Efficiency   Syn Diesel Compression 26.5
Fuel Potential   LNG Pilot Injection 23
Vehicle Adoption   CNG Spark 22.5
Fuel Cost   Hydrogen + Biogas Spark 21
Fuel Infrastructure   Biodiesel 100 Compression 19
    Ethanol Spark 17.5


(1) U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics (2007 Data)
(2) Statistics Canada - Road Transportation (2012 Data)
(3) U.S. Energy Information Administration Database
(4) Natural Resources Canada Website


Alternative Markets for DME as a Propane Substitute

Dimethyl ether can also be blended into the propane supply on a 20/80 basis without any detriment on end users. The Eastern Seaboard currently has the highest prices for propane, at well above 4.30 $/gallon. In particular, propane distributors can use their infrastructure to transport and store dimethyl ether for delivery to “behind the fence” fueling stations at each truck fleet. As opposed to CNG and LNG, the global propane infrastructure is robust, inexpensive and extensive. Propane has 1.22 times the energy density than DME on a volume basis, so 3.52 $/gallon of DME is energy equivalent to 4.30 $/gallon of propane.

China Leads the Way

The market for DME markets is growing rapidly in other parts of the world year over year and is expected to accelerate significantly in the future. Countries like South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Sweden, Egypt and Trinidad & Tobago have their own strategies to develop the DME by producing it domestically or by sourcing it from other countries. Production facilities are currently concentrated in China, with smaller capacity in Japan, Korea and Germany. The Netherlands, the U.S.A. and Canada have no major DME facilities, although production may come from recent methanol re-starts.

China has the largest capacity for methanol and dimethyl ether with 6,500,000 t/y (tonnes per year), or about 85% of worldwide production: a result of large investment since 2006. Dehydration of methanol, produced mainly from coal, is used for DME production. Interest in Methanol-to-Gasoline (MTG) has been observed in China, but with slower progress. Shortly, China will be capable of producing over 10 MM t/y.

Recently, three integrated, coal-based methanol to olefin (MTO) projects in China have been commissioned. Also after some delays, one other non-integrated MTO project has been launched. This non-integrated plant is relatively small for MTO, while a significant number of future MTO plants are “still on the drawing board”. For example, Shenhua Ningxia has a methanol capacity 1,670,000 t/y with a large fraction earmarked for DME production. Shenhua Baotou produces 1,800,000 t/y of methanol combined with ethylene/propylene production. The enormous Chinese coal-to-chemicals sector remains industrial user focused, but support for “high value” applications, like DME production focuses on Chinese fuel self- sufficiency objectives.

To reduce its 2.5 PM particulate pollution, Shanghai will test the use of DME fuel in heavy trucks and gradually expand it to buses and taxis. The Shanghai Economic and Information Technology Commission stated that DME will be tested by 50 or so taxis in Minhang District and a few local bus lines. Chinese markets are quoting a price of 3,000 yuan (US $482.10) a short ton, currently cheaper than locally distributed diesel. In a move based on simplicity, the Chinese trucking industry will bypass particulate filters, selective catalytic reduction and complex exhaust gas recirculation, by moving straight to simple DME engines to lower emissions.

The Best Fuel, Period

Abstract From Report 10: Department of Shipping and Marine Technology, Chalmers University of Technology, Göteborg, Sweden by Selma Brynolf, Shweta Kuvalekar and Karin Andersson:

The combined effort of reducing the emissions of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and greenhouse gases to comply with future regulations and reduce impact on climate change will require a significant change in ship propulsion. One alternative is to change fuels. In this study the environmental performance of two potential future marine fuels, methanol and dimethyl ether (DME), are evaluated and compared to present and possible future marine fuels.

Methanol and DME produced from natural gas was shown to be associated with a larger energy use and slightly more emissions of greenhouse gases in the life cycle when compared to HFO, MGO and LNG. Use of methanol and DME results in significantly lower impact when considering the impact categories particulate matter, photochemical ozone formation, acidification and eutrophication compared to HFO and MGO without any exhaust abatement technologies and of the same order of magnitude as for LNG.

Methanol and DME produced from willow or forest residues have the lowest life cycle global warming potential (GWP) of all fuels compared in this study and could contribute to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases from shipping significantly.

Post Script: Elizabeth, New Jersey 2021

After turning off at the New Jersey Turnpike Exit 12, Chip Taylor stops his DME powered tractor-trailer for a red light. He’s come a long way, hauling construction equipment parts in a 40 ft. shipping container from Cleveland for export to Africa. As the light turns green, he puts his powerful 15 Liter engine into gear. There’s no smoke in his rear mirror as he speeds up, and he thinks back to clouds of soot from his early driving days in 2005.

As he enters the crane yard, he glances to his right and sees the tank farm, holding different grades of DME for different modes of transportation. There’s the familiar blue tanks used for truck fuel, along with the new orange tanks used for marine applications. As he queues up in the offloading line, he notices a brand new tug heading out to guide the incoming container ship. It speeds up, smoke stack completely clear of soot, obviously powered by a new DME marine engine. Listening to his favorite talk show on the satellite radio, he remembers how he hated the stink of diesel and the clouds of smoke in the Port of Newark line-up. Now he can enjoy a nice day with window down and smell the salt water nearby.


North America currently holds enormous natural gas reserves that could soon make United States and Canada completely independent of foreign oil. Furthermore, Canada holds 11% of world’s biomass, another feedstock for the production of DME.

“There’s a way to do it better—find it!”

Attributed to Thomas Edison

The natural resources are in place. What has been lacking is a solution using natural gas and biomass for the North American chemical industry and transportation infrastructure, thereby reducing the region’s dependency on volatile, unreliable, politically priced Middle East petroleum.

This information has been sourced, reviewed and adapted from materials provided by ChemBioPower Inc.

For more information on this source, please visit ChemBioPower Inc.


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