Oberon Fuels, Ford, FVV partner to build DME-fueled passenger car

By Katie Fletcher | September 18, 2015

This week, Oberon Fuels Inc. announced it’s partnering with Ford and a conglomerate of companies and academia involved with the European automotive industry to develop the world’s first production passenger car powered by fuel-grade dimethyl ether (DME).

California-based Oberon Fuels has been working to develop the market for DME fuels made from biogas and industrial waste streams in the U.S. through a combination of technology development—in concert with Volvo Group—as well as with several regulatory bodies including the U.S. EPA, the California Air Resources Board, ISO and ASTM International.

With the announcement of this recent collaboration, Oberon can expand its focus to an additional transportation application. “We’re very excited about this because our focus has been on heavy-duty trucking, but this is an opportunity to open up a whole new market—the passenger car market—in Europe, but also around the world,” said Rebecca Boudreaux, president of Oberon Fuels.

The 3-year, 3.5-million ($4 million) project will research, analyze and test the potential of DME and oligomethyl ether (OME) as diesel replacements in passenger cars and heavy-duty vehicle engines, respectively, and will result in the first OEM-produced DME passenger car in the world.

Oberon is partnering with Ford, Forschungsvereinigung Verbrennungskraftmaschinen e. V. (FVV) and other FVV member companies for the project. FVV is a worldwide research network composed of 170 international member companies across the engine supply chain, including researchers, engine manufactures, component suppliers and fuel providers. Additionally, Oberon will be working with RWTH Aachen University, the Technical University of Munich, TUEV, DENSO and IAV Automotive Engineering with the international collaboration.

“We must continue to find ways to meet the growing global demand for liquid transportation fuels with lower-carbon fuels and more efficient, cleaner burning engines if we are to ensure the long-term sustainability of our planet,” said Ralf Thee, project manager with FVV in a release. “This is our most ambitious project yet, and we are pleased to be working with partners who share our commitment to innovation.”

Technical preparations and combustion engine development will span the first two years of the project with the third year focused on building demonstrator cars based on the Ford Mondeo.

“Ford is committed to helping develop the market for alternative fuels, and DME has exciting characteristics,” said Werner Willems, a technical specialist for powertrain combustion systems with Ford of Europe and project leader for this initiative. “Not only does DME offer the efficiency and torque desired in a diesel engine, but it can be made from renewable waste streams and reduce the long-term cost of ownership, all of which are important to our customers.”

Oberon Fuels will supply DME for the project from its small-scale pilot plant in Brawley, California, which has a nameplate capacity of 4,500 gallons of DME per day. Boudreaux said that Oberon doesn’t have a final number on how many gallons will be distributed for the purpose of the project. Initially, this year, two, 400-liter cylinders will be shipped to two different locations in Germany.

Oberon has received key certifications from the U.S. EPA and the state of California for its DME fuel.

In February 2014, ASTM International published a specification for DME as a transportation fuel. “This gave DME producers, engine manufacturers and infrastructure developers the opportunity to have a set of requirements for DME to meet,” Boudreaux said.

The following September, Biomass Magazine reported Oberon’s DME biogas-based fuel was approved by the U.S. EPA for inclusion under the renewable fuel standard (RFS). This made DME eligible for high-value D3 cellulosic and D5 advanced biofuel renewable identification numbers (RINs) under the RFS.

In February, Oberon announced that DME was approved for use as a vehicle fuel in the state of California. Now, with the consensus standard and California state approval, DME can be legally sold in all 50 states. Boudreaux added that in parallel to the state’s approval process, the California Air Resources Board began a DME multimedia evaluation. “They engaged researchers from universities to start the tier-one process,” Boudreaux said. “For this process, they looked at all of the publically available data on DME and its effect on air, soil and water and aggregated a report.”

The final draft of the California DME Multimedia Assessment Tier 1 report prepared by both the University of California Davis and Berkeley for the California EPA was published in February of 2015. Boudreaux said they are currently in the tier-two process, which is working to develop a testing plan to address any data gaps identified in tier one. She said the tier-three process will execute the actual testing and once that process is completed a comprehensive report will be written, stating whether the regulations are satisfactory or additional requirements will be needed.

The tier-two process is estimated to take another six to 12 months and testing is estimated to take between 12 to 24 months, according to Boudreaux.

As far as working with regulatory agencies, Boudreaux said Oberon always wanted to roll out the fuel in the right way, making sure that the proper framework was in place and the infrastructure was properly done. “We are very active in the regulatory development,” Boudreaux said. “There is a great group of almost 50 people on the ASTM task force who are continuing, as new data becomes available and additional testing is being done, to modify specifications.”

She adds that the trade group International DME is also actively engaged to make sure the fuel is rolled out in the right way. “These certifications are an extremely important piece of that puzzle,” Boudreaux said. “By converting waste streams into clean-burning DME fuel, we can address global emissions, but also create new economic opportunities through more distributed fuel production and consumption. FVV’s and Ford’s leadership in this project are recognized and appreciated by all. This project will help DME make great strides in this market.”