Disrupting the UK auto industry with dimethyl ether fuel technology
OIL & GAS
The liquid fuels that are currently used to power the UK’s vehicles are unsustainable and polluting. Various types of “green” fuels have emerged in recent decades, but so far none of them have been taken up widely enough to compete against traditional fossil fuels. Dimethyl ether (DME) has shown great potential as an alternative to diesel fuel; it is non-toxic, it burns without producing soot, and it can be produced locally and sustainably from recycled carbon dioxide and other gases. Here, we discuss why DME has been overlooked as part of Britain’s fuel infrastructure, and recommend the government take legislative steps to build confidence in DME in order to foster its economic potential as a sustainable fuel alternative.
In recent decades, the energy landscape in the UK has changed; across the country, as in much of the world, the use of fossil fuels is declining. Driven by consumer demand and government legislation, energy providers are turning towards new, cleaner sources of energy such as wind, solar, and hydroelectric power generation. While Britain’s electricity supply is becoming cleaner and more sustainable, the liquid fuels used to power vehicles—such as petrol and diesel—are still derived from unsustainable sources. A 2011 report commissioned by the Department of Transport (Scenarios for the cost effective deployment of biofuel in the UK road transport sector in 2020) identified dimethyl ether (DME) as the most sustainable of the alternative fuels available. DME has many attractive advantages over traditional fuels, and particularly over diesel. In addition to being sulphur-free, its chemical structure lacks carbon-carbon bonds, which means that it burns without producing soot. Thus, DME-fuelled engines do not require expensive particulate filters like those used to capture soot from diesel engines. Furthermore, DME can be produced through an established industrial process using a feedstock of gases consisting of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and hydrogen. These gases can be derived sustainably from a range of sources, including industrial and agricultural waste. In fact, DME can be produced from up to 50% recaptured carbon dioxide. Since feedstock sources are numerous and production can take place locally, the cost of DME is less vulnerable to disruption due to geopolitical threats, and its price will be less volatile than that of oil-derived fuels. DME has been in use for several years across China, and in some locations in Japan, Korea, Iran, and Egypt. In 2004 and again in 2009, the UK Government committed to producing 10% of liquid fuel from renewable sources by 2020. However, it is rapidly falling behind on achieving this goal. In 2014, only 3.5% of the UK’s liquid fuel was produced from renewable resources, most of it coming from reprocessing used cooking oil into fuel, or from bioethanol derived Ukrainian wheat.
What is Holding Back DME as a Fuel?
Five years after the 2011 report, DME is rarely used as fuel in the UK. The explanations provided for the lack of new investment reference factors such as the lack of suitable vehicles, and insufficient infrastructure. However, it may be time to reconsider DME as an option.
DME production technology is advanced enough to be taken up on a large scale. Innovations have reduced manufacturing costs, and across the globe, several DME plants have achieved annual production volumes of over 100,000 tonnes. Furthermore, vehicle manufacturers have shown interest in DME-powered vehicles: Volvo has developed and tested a fleet of trucks designed to run on DME, and Ford is leading a project with a consortium of other manufacturers to investigate the production of DME-fuelled passenger cars.
Rather than technological limitations, the main obstacle to the uptake of DME fuel in the western world appears to be a lack of confidence. Vehicle manufacturers, fuel suppliers, legislators, and consumers all seem to be waiting for someone else to make the first move before committing to a new fuel.
The main factors contributing to this lack of confidence are the fluctuating price of crude oil, potential changes in the carbon credit market, and alternative sustainable fuels. In recent years, the price of crude oil has plunged due to the increased recovery of crude oil from shale formations in the United States, and also due to the reduced rate of growth of the Chinese economy. DME, which was previously considered price-competitive with diesel, has become less attractive to consumers looking to invest in new vehicles. Since one of the potential feedstocks for DME production is recaptured carbon dioxide, a carbon credit market could also make investments in DME particularly attractive. It is unclear, however, how carbon credits will be impacted by the latest agreements of the EU, which come into effect in 2019. Coupled with doubts regarding the future of the UK in relation to the EU, and potential carbon credit agreements in the wider international community, the prospective price of DME is difficult to predict. Finally, various stakeholders are advocating for other alternative vehicle power sources such as biofuels, hydrogen fuel cells, or electricity. While DME holds some advantages over these fuels, interested parties remain hesitant to invest in specific technologies, given the uncertainty regarding which options will ultimately catch on.
"DME can be produced from up to 50% recaptured carbon dioxide.
The COST of DME is LESS DEPENDENT on geopolitical events."
Is There A Future For DME In The UK?
In the short term, DME production in the UK will most likely be small-scale. On-site DME-generating plants are an attractive prospect for individual companies, and especially appealing to those that generate significant amounts of carbon dioxide and keep their own fleet of vehicles (e.g., cement and steel manufacturers). To serve this market niche, the American firm Oberon has designed small, on-site DME plants which can use agricultural waste or recaptured gas to produce enough DME to fuel 10 to 20 trucks driving 500 miles a day.
In the long run, oil prices are likely to rise, increasing the demand for alternative fuels. For DME to become widely used, however, targeted legislation is necessary. A combination of a clear framework of tax cuts for users of sustainable fuels and national investment in large-scale DME production would give stakeholders the confidence necessary to pursue investments in DME, and enable the UK to keep its sustainable fuel commitment.
Investing in DME would also allow the UK to retain its fuel independence. Currently, over 76% of the renewable fuels used in the UK are imported, and with diminishing North Sea oil production, the UK is at risk of becoming reliant on foreign sources for fuel.
DME fuel has much potential, but for it to become widely accepted and economically viable, political measures will need to be implemented. If that happens, DME is likely to play a major role in the future of liquid fuel in the UK and perhaps the western world.
"VOLVO has developed and tested a fleet of trucks designed to run
on DME and FORD is leading a project with a CONSORTIUM of
manufacturers investigating the production of DME-fuelled passenger cars."