Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Science and Technology (AIST) and eight private companies have applied for a permit to test mid- and large-size trucks using Dimethyl Ether (DME) fuel, a clean burning synthetic fuel that can substitute for conventional diesel, liquified petroleum gas (LPG) or be reformed into hydrogen for fuel cells.
Slated to start in the end of September, the trial will evaluate the durability and practicability of DME trucks when they run long distances on public roads. The partners in the trial are CO-OP EV, Mitsubishi Gas Chemical, Itochu, Itochu Enex, JFE Holdings, Fukuyama Transporting, Ono Sokki, and Iwatani International.
DME has been under research and development in Japan since 1989, when NKK, one of Japan’s leading steel companies, took the initiative. Since then, there have been a variety of production tests, but it was only in Feb 2002 that the first DME trial vehicle was certified for road testing by the government.
Nevertheless, DME has a prominent position in the strategic thinking of many Asian and European auto and engine makers (such as Isuzu and Volvo). To the right is a high-level 2003 roadmap from Isuzu on trends in “eco-friendly” vehicle development. In this outlook, diesel is rapidly supplanted with a mixture of technologies, including DME. (Isuzu is known outside of the US as a key diesel engine manufacturer.)
There are two principal benefits to DME. First is its clean-burning nature; using DME addresses many of the emissions problems associated with petroleum diesel. Second is the ability to synthesize it from a variety of feedstocks: coal, natural gas, biomass. Many of the Asian countries well endowed with coal are looking to DME as an alternative to petroleum or natural gas fuels. Some natural gas powerhouses—such as Iran—are looking to DME as a way to convert natural gas to liquid product prior to transportation.
Whichever benefit you choose, DME appears to be almost ready for commercial debut. Accordingly, the First International DME Conference is being held this October in Paris, organized by the International DME Association.
NKK Technical Review article from 2003 with a detailed description of NKK’s DME strategy and outlook.