Carbon-negative fuels come clearer, closer with Oberon’s leap to demo scale

July 15, 2019 |

From California comes news that Oberon Fuels has been officially awarded a grant for $2,876,139 from the California Energy Commission (CEC) for a first-of-its-kind, multi-phase project to produce the first renewable dimethyl ether (rDME), with what could arguably be the most carbon-negative transport fuel ever produced at scale.

Carbon neutral, zero-emission, carbon negative – what is what

To refresh, there is low-carbon, zero carbon and negative carbon fuel possibilities as alternatives to conventional fossil fuels. Low carbon fuels reduce the greenhouse gas emissions, zero carbon fuels add no net carbon in their lifecycle, while negative carbon fuels actually vacuum the sky out of more emissions than are ever emitted by the combustion.

There’s also the concept of a zero-emission vehicle, which has no tailpipe emissions, but ZEVs do’t inherently reduce greenhouse gas emissions —with an electric vehicle, you could have stunningly high greenhouse emissions at the coal-fired power plant where the power is generated, and nothing at the tailpipe.

But carbon negative is the best, and DME’s fuel, generated from dairy waste, checks in a whopping Carbon Intensity score of -278, compared to 100 for conventional fossil fuel.

The project

This project unlocks the near- and medium-term decarbonization benefits of rDME, an economical fuel and key step in the development of a California-based, renewable hydrogen (rH2) pathway to zero-emission mobility.

Oberon will upgrade its existing DME pilot facility to demonstration scale and facilitate the first production of rDME in the U.S. By making automation, design, and other system changes, Oberon expects the production capacity to double compared to current stable production volumes, as well as to be able to use a new by-product from the paper industry to produce the fuel. The project will take place in Brawley, California, south of the Salton Sea in California’s Imperial Valley.

In addition to scaling up the plant and testing new feedstocks, the project will also test modified diesel trucks fueled by rDME in the Imperial Valley and other Southern California locations. Oberon will work with commercial partners to assess the technical feasibility and economics of converting renewable methanol, a by-product of the pulping process, into rDME and developing an associated rDME fueling infrastructure.

The leap to DME

This project is a key building block to statewide production of rDME from California’s methane, removing this potent greenhouse gas from waste streams and converting it to an ultra-low carbon or carbon-negative transportation fuel. Beyond this project, these technology enhancements will be leveraged into Oberon’s first commercial-scale facility converting dairy biogas to rDME. Oberon can then replicate its initial commercial production facility for statewide rollout of rDME production facilities. These commercial plants will convert in-state methane emissions from dairy manure, food waste, and agricultural waste to rDME.

The Demonstration Scale – what it means

Oberon already has a pilot-scale production – so what’s different?

For one, it’s double the output, and that comes from making the reactor column more efficient based on data from pilot scale. Another improvement is in changing the way the reaction catalyst is packed Right now, the process takes methanol and converts to DME, since converting from dairy waste to methanol is a commercially proven and available process.

Specifically, Oberon ultimately at commercial scale will take direct dairy waste, convert it to methane, then syngas, then syngas to methanol, then methanol to DME. The dairy waste will be typically aggregated across several dairy operations in a cluster, connected by a low-pressure pipeline that moves methane after anaerobic digestion into methane. In the end, this is a “close to the feedstock” rather than “close to the customer” operation — the odious nature of dairy waste and the ease of moving DME dictates this as the obvious approach.

For the dairy farmer

It’s more money – for one fewer nuzzles at the bowl on this one, compared to Renewable Natural Gas, where you have a pipeline company (such as a utility) in the mx, and a gas-conditioning company to clean up methane before it is injected into the pipeline. More dollars for all means a bigger cut for the farmer.

Hydrogen, and other applications beyond diesel replacement

While most of the focus on DME has been on its application as a diesel fuel replacement, it can also serve as both a cost-effective, easy-to-transport hydrogen carrier and as a blending agent with propane to reduce propane’s carbon intensity when DME is made from renewable feedstocks.

Since rDME is an efficient hydrogen carrier, rDME can be transported to a hydrogen fueling station and then converted to renewable hydrogen to fuel zero-emission vehicles. The stripping will typically release CO2, but the immense carbon negativity of the fuel more than offsets that emission, and DME-based green hydrogen is also carbon negative. And is 3-4 times more dense than conventionally transported hydrogen, and safer — so, no Hindenburg going up in flames while delivering a hydrogen fuel.

With only a 20 percent blend of dairy manure-based rDME, propane’s carbon intensity (CI) value is reduced from 82 to 10. With over 4,000 vehicles, including school buses, police cars, and shuttles, running on propane in California, rDME offers the potential to significantly reduce overall GHG emissions. So, you can grill with carbon pride from your propane tank each summer, if Oberon is in the mix.

The Fleet advantage in using DME

California is tilting towards zero emission vehicles, but for cash strapped city and county fleets, new vehicles can be expensive. Here’s a drop-in solution that does not require a new vehicle purchase that is even better than zero emission, it is carbon negative. So, for school bus fleets, here’s something that can be done today, not 15 years from now at fleet replacement time.

The Partners

Project partners and subcontractors for this application include Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries Inc. (Al-Pac); CALSTART; Dynalectric – San Diego; EFR Environmental Services, Inc.; ETX, LLC a subsidiary of El Toro Export, LLC; Martin Transport; Northern Alberta Institute of Technology; Parafour Innovations; Performance Mechanical Contractors; Prins, a subsidiary of Westport Fuel Systems; Roddey Engineering; and SHV Energy.

Reaction from the stakeholders

“With this grant,” said Rebecca Boudreaux, Ph.D., president of Oberon Fuels, “we plan to demonstrate rDME can reduce greenhouse gases and criteria pollutants, replace diesel fuel, maintain performance in existing engines and provide air quality and economic benefits to rural communities such as those located within Imperial Valley. We thank the California Energy Commission for its support and look forward to a successful project.”

“This project will simultaneously address two pressing problems afflicting Imperial Valley by reducing climate change impacts and creating badly-needed jobs,” said Assembly member Eduardo Garcia D-AD 56). “I am thrilled that Oberon Fuels will be demonstrating this new technology in the 56th District, and I look forward to their long-term success and towards making the region a centerpiece for clean fuels.”

“Renewable DME provides an elegant solution to not only the state’s dairy methane challenges but also offers a pathway to zero-emissions for the state’s transportation sector,” said Elliot Hicks, COO and co-founder of Oberon Fuels.

The Bottom Line

Who dislikes carbon-negative fuels made from dairy waste? That would be no one. We’ve been waiting a long time for commercial scale DME and there’s much left to do to bring this technology and this fuel to market. This is a giant leap, as Neil Armstrong put it some 50 years ago.

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