CATS: Biogas producer may be onto something with DME

Number 20 in the Clean Air Technologies Series.Diesel-smoke[1]

Reducing (if not completely eliminating) particulates from the atmosphere – typically introduced via the burning of fossil fuels – and therefore lowering exposure to such pollutants, would go a long way in not only helping improve the quality of the air we breathe but that of life as well. Meanwhile, if inhaled, fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) can lodge deep in the lungs and enter the bloodstream. Prolonged exposure to fine particulates may increase a person’s risk of heart attack and stroke.

It, no doubt, is with the above key considerations and others in mind, namely, that “The transport of people and goods consumes nearly three-quarters of the nation’s petroleum, emits around a third of greenhouse gases, and is responsible for around half of urban air pollution,”1 that extensive if not exhaustive work aimed at ridding the air of contaminants has been ongoing. In California, think Assembly Bill 32 (the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006) and Senate Bill 375 (the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008).

One such effort is being advanced by biogas producer Oberon Fuels.

Oberon Fuels, in its own June 7, 2013 press release emphasized, “The first-ever North American production units for clean-burning, fuel-grade dimethyl ether (DME) have been developed by Oberon Fuels, and will go online in June in the Imperial Valley region of southern California. The production facility and Oberon’s cooperation with Volvo Trucks in North America and Safeway, Inc. were announced at a press conference on the steps of the Capitol in Sacramento [June 6, 2013]. The three companies are partnering to test DME performance in heavy-duty commercial Volvo trucks driven by Safeway for operations in the San Joaquin Valley.” I first wrote about this in “Cleaning the air by lowering diesel’s impact on it.”

Moreover, Oberon in the release stressed, “DME, which has been proven as an energy source in many countries around the world, is a non-toxic, sulfur-free and clean-burning (generates no particulate matter) fuel that offers a clean alternative to diesel fuel for trucking operations. To date, it has not been used as a transportation fuel in North America, in part because of the cost of developing large-scale production facilities.”

But what if DME production were upped significantly? Doing just that would be far-reaching in terms of its implications in my view, not just with regard to diesel application in the transportation arena but outside as well.

Speaking to this Oberon relates, “Huge reserves of natural gas make efficient conversion to DME a natural next step toward promoting greater energy independence for the United States while reducing environmental impacts of the transportation sector. In addition, feedstocks—such as shale gas and biogas from animal, food, and agricultural waste—can be converted to DME and monetized using the Oberon process. Because DME can be produced from a variety of methane- containing feedstocks, it has the potential to be a renewable resource. Since production is not dependent on the price of crude oil and the Oberon process uses multiple feedstock sources, the price of DME is expected to be more stable than that of diesel.”

Imagine the exhaust of diesel, regardless of application, with 95 percent less CO2 and completely absent of particulate matter. For that matter, imagine any exhaust free of air contaminants. I truly believe that day is coming and will be here before we know it.


  1. “UC Transportation Center: About UCTC—Our Theme,” University of California Transportation Center,

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