Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas) and Oberon Fuels, a San Diego CA-based low-emission alternative fuels company, announced a joint research and development agreement to design and construct the first commercial facility in the United States to produce Dimethyl Ether (DME) from natural gas for use as a transportation fuel.

The facility will be in Southern California and produce the ultra-clean fuel, which can be used as an alternative to diesel and propane, as well as for non-transportation uses.

Hal D Snyder, vice-president of customer solutions for SoCalGas, said,“Fifty-five billion gallons of diesel fuel are consumed annually in the United States, and the trucking industry is looking for cost-effective solutions that meet the rigorous air quality standards and support the common goal of cleaner air. Using natural gas as a feedstock for DME is just another environmentally beneficial use for natural gas, an abundant, cost-effective, and domestic fuel. We see DME as complementary to other natural gas transportation solutions.”

The planned demonstration facility will use Oberon’s proprietary technology and process, which will mix natural gas with carbon dioxide (CO2) to produce DME in small-scale, skid-mounted modular units that will produce 3,000 to 6,000 gallons of DME per day. DME generates almost no particulate matter and produces ultra-low levels of smog-causing nitrogen oxides (NOx). It burns cleaner than diesel while providing improved engine performance, and it has handling characteristics similar to propane.

Oberon is working with a variety of policy leaders and state agencies to help ensure that DME becomes part of California’s clean alternative transportation fuel arsenal. The joint demonstration project is first targeting the “return-to-base” trucking segment. In return-to-base applications, trucks go out in the morning, make their deliveries, and return to the same location for refueling and restocking.

DME is most widely used an environmentally friendly gas aerosol propellant in consumer products. Research on it as an alternative fuel for diesel engines began in the 1990s, and worldwide production has increased dramatically over the past decade. Using DME primarily as a blendstock for propane gas, China has driven the growth in demand and prompted large plants to be built throughout Asia and the Middle East.

According to the US Department of Transportation, there are nearly 11 million medium- and heavy-duty trucks operating in the United States. Several truck manufacturers have been testing new DME trucks for several years with excellent results, and existing diesel trucks can be retrofitted for it with modest modifications.