In 2019, the transportation sector was the most significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Transportation was responsible for 29% of emissions, followed by electricity at 25% and industry at 23%.
From commercial planes to semis to personal vehicles, the transportation sector runs on gasoline, jet fuel, and diesel.
Oberon Fuels is searching for a way to decarbonize transportation fuels. Headquartered in Brawley, California, Oberon has produced an alternative fuel made from food waste, landfills, animal manure, and other sources of waste.
By converting methanol (a greenhouse gas) into renewable Dimethyl Ether (rDME), Oberon aims to provide the transportation world with an affordable and low-carbon alternative to diesel and operate as a viable carrier for hydrogen.
Multiple Uses of Renewable Dimethyl Ether
According to the California Air Resources Board (CARB), propane has a carbon intensity score (CI) of 83 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per megajoule of energy (gCO2e/MJ), which is a measure of greenhouse gas emissions for the complete life cycle of a fuel. A higher CI score is worse for the environment, and by comparison, the CI for diesel is 95 and 96 for gasoline. In contrast, rDME, as a post-emissions methanol with a high energy density, has a negative CI value of -278 when produced from dairy biogas. Mixing 20% of rDME with propane drops the CI of the fuel to a merger 11.
Currently, propane-powered vehicles make up only a fraction of the total vehicles registered in the U.S. The Propane Education and Research Council recorded approximately 200,000 registered vehicles running on propane in 2016. According to Oberon, California had 6,700 vehicles running on propane in 2021.
While these numbers pale compared to the 276 million vehicles registered domestically, renewable Dimethyl Ether also transports hydrogen.
One of the biggest blockages to expanding the use of hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicles is the lack of accessible hydrogen. Hydrogen must be compressed into a liquid at around 10,000 pounds per square inch (psi) before being transported, an expensive and potentially dangerous event. Meanwhile, rDME liquefies at about 73 psi, making it a very affordable option.
In addition, because rDME has a similar chemical structure to propane, it is much easier to use rDME for propane infrastructure. According to the CEO of Oberon Fuels, Rebecca Boudreaux, “The propane industry is perfectly set up to be the infrastructure and logistics partner for this molecule.”
Boudreaux continues, “The [propane] industry knows how to move, transport, and dispense propane. And with little or no modifications, that infrastructure can be used to work with rDME.”
Oberon Produces Renewable
Oberon began producing rDME on a commercial scale in 2021 at its facility in California. Funded in part by the California Energy Commission, the project cost a total of $6 million.
The impact rDME will have on the transportation sector’s battle to slow and ultimately reverse climate change remains to be seen. Oberon has only begun to produce the molecule on a large scale. Nonetheless, rDME shows promise as a multi-faceted molecule to curb carbon emissions in various ways.
Luke Brennan is a writer and software developer originally from Pittsburgh.