Mathew Walsh
Director General
Volvo Group Trucks Mexico
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Insight

DME Heralded as Alternative Fuel of Choice

Mon, 09/01/2014 - 14:17

Natural gas, biodiesel, ethanol, propane, and hydrogen have all had their time in the spotlight and are now the most widely known alternative fuels. However, none of them have been wholly convincing and the search for the next alternative fuel continues. For some, dimethyl ether (DME) is the real fuel of the future. Volvo Group is among those convinced of this and has been involved in the development of DME since the idea first appeared. “As a world leader in creating alternative energy solutions for heavy vehicles, the group made the commitment to test eight different alternative fuels globally for the last decade, and recently launched a big program in the state of California for DME fuel,” says Volvo Group Trucks Mexico’s Director General, Matthew Walsh.

DME is a clean, colorless gas that is easy to liquefy and transport. Used as a common propellant in aerosol sprays, in many personal care products, and lubricant oil, it has an excellent long-term safety record. Recently, it has drawn attention for the remarkable potential it holds as an automotive fuel as well as for electric power generation. Some of DME’s promising qualities are that it has a high oxygen content, it lacks sulfur and other noxious compounds, and it provides clean combustion. Today, DME production is primarily based on methanol dehydration, but one of its valuable characteristics is that it can be derived from a variety of abundant sources. “Volvo Group Trucks’ R&D department has found that agricultural products in over 90% of the world could produce DME, and you can even use some fossil fuels to make DME,” explains Walsh. Research has shown that DME has evolved to become a modern and safe source of energy and compares favorably to other energy sources. It provides low CO2 emissions and a 90% reduction in NOx emissions compared with standard automotive fuels. Moreover, the automotive use of DME has the highest efficiency of all synthetic liquid fuels, with 30% higher fuel economy than gasoline in passenger cars. That is of course an attractive benefit considering ever stricter CAFE standards. According to Walsh, natural gas is good for regional haul and light distribution, but it does not fare well for long haul or heavy loads as it lacks the strength to power vehicles in such conditions. “DME has approximately 72% the strength of diesel, while natural gas has just 45% of that. This means you would have to carry about twice the amount of natural gas than diesel to get  you the same distance. With DME, you only need to carry 30% more,” adds Walsh.

“As fuel costs continue to go up in price, the awareness of alternative fuels is also beginning to increase,” explains Walsh. Indeed, operators are looking for anything that can minimize their fuel consumption and improve profitability. “As the need continues to grow, the quest for alternative fuels will get fiercer. Therefore, developing DME has become a priority for Volvo Group as customers see the company as a technology leader,” says Walsh. “The company’s biggest weakness in the past was that although it came up with technological innovations, it took too long to offer them to the industry and competitors ended up beating them to the market. In the DME race, therefore, Volvo Group is at full throttle to get the fuel out there. It has been tested in Europe, and it is currently being tested in the US, Brazil, and Australia to gain several points of view on just how flexible it is as a fuel resource. We will make natural gas engines in conjunction with DME engines enabling us to answer those who are determined that natural gas is the future.”

Having evaluated eight different options and deciding DME is the fuel of choice, Walsh admits that some barriers must still be dealt with before DME vehicles reach the market. Incentives must be provided by the Mexican government to offset the initial cost structure, according to Walsh. “To get DME from a natural gas fueling center might cost anywhere between US$400,000 and US$1 million for the conversion of just one location.” He points out that natural gas engines are popular in certain markets despite costing US$30,000 more apiece than diesel engines. “This has been made possible thanks to accelerated tax depreciation, rebate programs, and access to contracts that depend on a certain percentage of a fleet running on natural gas. However, these same principles could be applied to DME engines and trucks. Yet another barrier is presented by the politics involved, including the fact that revenues from PEMEX fund so much government activity.” For Walsh, it is indisputable that the Mexican government is struggling with how to change the country’s heavy reliance on fossil fuel consumption. “The government is wondering how to create the revenue stream for these alternative fuels, from raising highway taxation to taxing tires,” says Walsh. As many countries are facing similar scenarios, Volvo Group Trucks has begun meeting with governments around the world to prove that alternative fuel solutions can be made to work in markets facing high pollution levels and other issues. “It is a no-brainer that clean technologies have to be brought in to compensate for what has been done to the environment over the last century,” Walsh concludes.