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NAIT partnering with Oberon, Mack and Westcan to advance use of DME fuel in long-haul trucks

The Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) is partnering with Mack Trucks, Oberon Fuels and Westcan Bulk Transport to develop fuel moisture management technology for dimethyl ether (DME), a cleaner-burning (sulfur-free and no PM), high-cetane (55-60), diesel fuel alternative that can be made from natural gas or methanol produced from biomass feedstock, such as wood chips.

The technology will remove any residual water from the DME before injection into the engine, eliminating the risks of corrosion and reduced performance. The researchers hope to test the technology using Mack trucks from Westcan’s fleet, traveling Alberta Highway 2 between Edmonton and Calgary—a distance of about 300 km (186 miles).

DME offers performance that is similar to diesel, making it suited for fleets that have to haul heavy loads. DME produces zero soot, zero sulfur oxides (SOx), less NOx and also significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions compared to diesel (especially if made from biogas).

DME is a gas under ambient conditions. However, because it can be stored as a liquid under moderate pressure, it eliminates the need for the high-pressure containers used for CNG or cryogenics, as in the case of LNG. DME’s easy handling properties make fueling and infrastructure relatively simple and inexpensive.

Producing DME usually uses a two-step process: the feedstock gas is converted to methanol; the methanol is then dehydrated to form DME and water, with some unconverted methanol also in the effluent. ISO 16861 specifies a maximum limit of 0.050 mass % methanol and 0.030 mass % water in DME used for fuel. (ISO 17197 specifies a test procedure for the amount of water content in DME used as fuel; this procedure is applicable to determine the amount of water up to the value specified in ISO 16861.)

The NAIT project is being funded with $368,000 from the Government of Alberta – Ministry of Economic Development and Trade.

In January 2017, Oberon, a producer of DME, announced the first customer demonstration of a DME-powered Mack truck, a Mack Pinnacle. Oberon and Mack are working with the NYC Department of Sanitation (DSNY) to run the vehicle at the Fresh Kills Landfill and evaluate performance and overall drivability. The test is the first step in the city’s evaluation of both DME trucks and DME fuel as a potential long-term strategy to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 and to achieve the city’s goal of sending zero waste to landfill by 2030. (Earlier post.)

Oberon Fuels has developed proprietary skid-mounted, small-scale production units produce DME from various feedstocks, such as biogas and natural gas. This small-scale process circumvents the financial, infrastructure, and permitting challenges that large-scale projects confront. Oberon units have the capacity to produce 10,000 gallons of DME per day to service regional fuel markets.

Because DME can be produced from natural gas, its use could provider another value-added product from Alberta’s resources. The partners noted that the global DME market is expected to grow to $13.1 billion by 2020.

Oberon’s efforts to develop a new global transportation fuel have been accelerated by the support and participation of such forward-looking companies who are committed to sustainable transportation. Alberta is leading the way by investing in DME, one of the few truly carbon-negative fuels available, and the only one that can deliver the power needed for heavy-duty applications.

—Dr. Rebecca Boudreaux, President, Oberon Fuels

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