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In a series of recent diary entries, beginning here I've been trying to talk up a fuel that is not as well known - or hyped - as hydrogen, but for many reasons, listed in the original post, is far superior to hydrogen.   This fuel is dimethyl ether, DME, the simple molecule that may be thought, in chemist speak, of as methylated water.  I have briefly offered some remarks on why DME is an outstanding fuel option. Unfortunately, plans to commercialize this fuel, which are well underway in many countries, are using fossil fuels, primarily coal and natural gas as sources. People like to hear about clean energy, unlimited energy, cheap energy, and of course, sustainable energy.   To some extent people have convinced themselves that the main, even the only acceptable form of such energy is renewable energy, specifically limited to biomass, solar, wind, hydro (tidal and riverine) and geothermal.   Thus people have been asking me about whether DME can be accommodated to these strategies.  

My view is that there is an element of wishful thinking in claims that these forms of energy are currently in a state of possible development large enough to meet our environmental crisis or our energy needs, but that's a different question.   The answer to the question of whether DME can be accommodated to these renewable strategies is yes:   In fact some of the infrastructure for doing so already exists, and the issue has been systematically explored in Sweden, where much attention is being paid to the subject of DME and its precursor, methanol.

The nice thing about DME compared to hydrogen is that it can use existing infrastructure, but it is important to note that DME can be made by any of the largely theoretical or piloted, renewable methods that are now discussed for hydrogen, specifically solar and wind, since DME can be made from hydrogenating carbon dioxide - either obtained from air or from waste streams from fossil fuel or biomass burning plants - or, even better, potentially the atmosphere.   (The reason for using hydrogen to make DME rather than to use hydrogen directly as a fuel would be to exploit DME's superior physical properties and broader utility as discussed in other diary entries.)  So if you're attached to some hydrogen hype with respect to possible sources of hydrogen (which is just a form of energy storage and not a form of primary energy), be aware that they can also be applied to make DME.

There is one possible source of DME that would make DME directly from renewably produced electricity.   This is the Olah fuel cell, which reportedly has been made reversible, and was developed with the active participation of the Nobel Prize winning chemist George Olah.   An Olah type fuel cell, which burns methanol, is already commercially available, albeit for small scale uses like laptops that can be recharged instantly by simply adding liquid methanol.  (The recent ridiculous terrorism on aircraft scale probably had a negative impact on the marketing of this cool device.)   However the marketed fuel cells are not like batteries:   They only go in one direction.   You can make electricity from methanol, but not methanol from electricity.    If one could produce methanol from electricity directly from electricity, one could easily obtain DME from it.   The driving force for doing so would be to avoid the huge drawbacks of methanol itself - it is poisonous, causing blindness, and very difficult to remove from water, with which it is completely miscible.   Recent reports from Dr. Olah's labs - and he has made the methanol (DME) economy the center of his current work - indicate that he has made great strives at accomplishing this.

If this is true, George Olah has potentially provided humanity with one of the greatest tools it can possibly have in the fight against climate change.  This should be garnering far more attention than it has.   The man is a god-damned Nobel Laureate, for crying out loud!

My estimation is that the only form of renewable energy that is really scalable to the extent as to make a real immediate impact on the fossil fuels crisis is wind power.   However, there are currently big drawbacks to wind, having to do with its unpredictable nature and the need to maintain spinning reserves to cover its performance.   In fact, wind power can only be effective in the fight against climate change where storage capacity is available - and the only such storage capacity available on scale today is rivers and dams.   When Denmark is dumping excess wind generated electricity on the Nordic energy grid in the middle of night, that electricity is used to power down dams, saving the water behind them for use during peak hours.   It is only under these circumstances that wind makes a real impact.

Imagine though, that the reversible Olah fuel cell were available.   Under these circumstances wind power could be stored easily.   No vast tanks of gaseous hydrogen would be required.   In fact, one could simply siphon off the liquid fuel and transport it, via pipeline, to run automobiles, or lawn mowers, or leaf blowers, or any of the devices for which you now use gasoline.   In fact you could power these devices with fuel cells, replacing the loud gas motors with silent electric motors and increase the energy efficiency enormously in both thermodynamic and idling means.

Under these circumstances wind farms in North Dakota could do what the cannot really do now, provide energy in New York, or in Hawaii, or in South America at Tierra del Fuego.

Moreover, it happens that this cell could - conceivably is the big word here - do what nature does, take the energy of electrons and use it to store energy as a chemical fuel, while removing carbon dioxide from the air in an equilibrium driven process.

But the Olah fuel cell and my suggested modification involving atmospheric carbon dioxide - is still futuristic.   Nowhere are commercial plants available to utilize this wonderful sounding technology.   Indeed the reversible cell is not commercial, and important questions like the availability of ruthenium - a metal used in the system - are not available.

At this point I would like to refer to a very comprehensive and detailed discussion of one approach to obtaining DME as a by-product of the wood industry, a large player in Sweden's economy.     This well referenced English language Swedish report,  mostly focuses on DME and/or methanol from what is known as "black liquor," a side product of the paper pulp industry that is currently used as a low value heating fuel for the generation of electricity in Sweden and elsewhere.   The report is over 300 pages long, but it does cover many of the broader issues related to DME and I will excerpt a few of them here rather than force people to go through the report.

 The primary route to produce CO2-neutral motor fuels is through conversion of agricultural and forestry residues and organic wastes to gas (biogas), hydrocarbons (biodiesel, Fischer-Tropsch diesel), alcohols (methanol and ethanol), or dimethyl ether (DME). The hydrocarbons and the alcohols can be blended into petrol or diesel to facilitate market introduction and distribution. For example, 18% of the petrol in Sweden is today blended by 5% with ethanol (E5) without adjustments needed for the vehicles [5]. The infrastructure could likewise accommodate methanol without much change.

In the long term, conversion to hydrogen is an attractive route, but this requires far greater changes to distribution systems and vehicles. Furthermore, as long as fuel cells will be much more expensive than current engines per kilowatt it is unlikely that the gain in energy efficiency or lower emissions will be enough as argument for replacement. The cost of a modern automobile engine is roughly $50/kW and for a suitable PEM fuel cell about 5000/kW. Thus, just the engine cost for a premium 160 hp automobile would be $590 000 instead of today's $5900. Hydrogen has physical properties that make it most unsuitable...

...Both methanol and DME show promising features as fuel candidates with the Otto and the diesel engine and comparing with other fuels from an LCA point of view, these fuels show highest energy efficiency from "well-to-wheel".

"LCA" is life cycle analysis, a short hand for "environmental cost."

The European pulp and paper industry is a vital part of an economic cluster - the paper and forest cluster - that generates an annual turnover of more than EUR 400 billion. In 2002, more than 1260 pulp and paper mills produced some 91 million tonnes of paper and board. The industry provides direct employment for about 250 000 people, and indirect employment - through the paper and forest cluster - for 3.5 million people. A pulp mill that produces bleached kraft pulp generates 1.7-1.8 tonnes of black liquor (measured as dry content) per tonne of pulp. Black liquor thus represents a potential energy source of 250-500 MW per mill...

...Today, black liquor is the most important source of energy from biomass in countries such as Sweden and Finland with a large pulp and paper industry. It is thus of great interest to convert the primary energy in the black liquor to an energy carrier of high value...

There are efficiency benefits:

The resulting biomass to methanol energy efficiency when only biomass is used as an external energy source was very high, 66% for methanol and 67% when DME was produced. The BLGMF plant generated additional electricity, solely consumed by internal plant units in that there was no need for additional energy...

There's a lot of economic analysis:

To estimate the potential revenue of methanol and DME a selling price of methanol and DME at the mill gate was calculated by assuming that the cost for the consumer should be the same as for petrol (methanol) and diesel (DME). The estimated price is about SEK 2095 (€231) per tonne of methanol, when considering the current Swedish CO2 tax on petrol and similarly about SEK 3100 (€341) per tonne of DME.  

More on the diesel option:

 

DME as diesel fuel DME is a "natural" fuel for diesel engines due to the exceptionally high cetane number. Therefore, the same efficiency as for diesel fuel is possible for a diesel engine adapted for DME. DME is non-toxic and should have an inherent property of significantly reducing the toxic emissions in the exhaust in comparison to conventional diesel fuel. A significant reduction of the NOX emissions for DME in comparison to diesel fuel has been found in several studies. Particulate formation is largely avoided with DME in comparison to hydrocarbon fuels. DME also provide the opportunity for using higher rate of EGR, which further reduced the NOX emissions compared to diesel fuel. Deducing from the limited number of studies available, it seems that the use of a NOX reducing catalyst should be a viable solution for this fuel. Since DME is sulphur-free, the use of effective after treatment devices in general is more easily facilitated with DME than with sulphur containing fuels.

A particular problem with DME as a motor fuel is the fuel injection system...  

Volvo's got a big commercial interest in this technology:

Volvo considers DME to be the major candidate as future energy carrier including fuel for heavy-duty transports. Since the early 90's Volvo has been studying energy sources and carriers issues with a holistic perspective. A holistic perspective regarding energy carriers is essential in the long-term energy scenario.

DME is a fuel, which is well suited for compression ignition engines (diesel process). The diesel engine has a comparatively high efficiency, which today can reach 45% at the best. There should be possibilities to increase the engine efficiency to approximately 50% in ten to fifteen years. Buses for urban transport may also be hybridized and this can further increase the efficiency by 20%, thus it might be possible to reach 60% in such applications. DME has a high cetane number and ignites more readily than most conventional diesel fuels. This implies possibilities for even more improvements in energy efficiency compared to today's diesel fuels.

Volvo has been active in developing a system for using DME is heavy-duty vehicles since 1996. In 1999 Volvo Bus presented the first DME-powered heavy-duty bus in the world, see Figure 8.2.

Technical descriptions and flow charts of industrial systems are also widely available in this report.

I will be back to discuss how DME can be integrated into a nuclear based economy, which potentially could make DME available for the displacement of all fossil fuels.

Originally posted to NNadir on Mon Oct 16, 2006 at 11:20 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Long on hyperbole, short on facts. (0+ / 0-)
    •  Too true - what's the carbon balance? (0+ / 0-)

      If bio-DME is going to save us, we're going to have to get enough raw materials to make what we need.  Everything I've found says that even the USA's huge per-capita supply of surplus biomass can't supply enough carbon to replace even our oil consumption, let alone coal and natural gas.  Switching transport from gasoline to DME-fueled diesels only gets a small fraction of the problem.  And with Delphi supplying a 49%-efficient SOFC stack to DOE for testing just the other day at a mere $254/kW, are diesels even in the running any more?

      The only way this sort of thing is going to work is if we supply all energy demand from carbon-free energy supplies first (wind, nuclear, solar) and only use carbon fuels for the extreme conditions where electricity cannot be supplied or batteries are too expensive.  The plug-in hybrid is the future; though I own a diesel and think it's great, I want this one to be my last one.

      --
      Work the cold equations; some answers will make you feel warm.

      by Engineer Poet on Tue Oct 17, 2006 at 07:14:16 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I did not say that "all" the carbon must come (0+ / 0-)

        from biomass.

        I said that DME can be made from biomass but not that all of it must come from biomass.

        I will reference some of the considerable work that has been done on the production of DME from carbon dioxide in a future diary entry.

        I am merely trying to show that a DME infrastructure can exploit all forms of renewable energy, including those that are generally defined as "renewable."  

        I don't believe for a second that hand waving about renewables will be enough in the life time of anyone now living.   I do believe that renewable energy can do more than it is doing.  

        Renewable energy has popular support.   It's not the best option but it is an option.   I am trying to show that DME is consistent with the popularly praised scheme of renewable energy as a primary energy source.

        Plants store energy that is made through the agency of reducing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.   Therefore, from this biological model, we know that such an approach is eminently possible.   The energy to effect the separation of carbon dioxide from air in plants is driven by a shift in equilibrium.  The key to the energy future - in the increasingly unlikely scenario in which we actually survive global climate change - will depend on efficient conversion of energy from one form to another.

        We knew that heavier than air flight was possible because birds and insects flew.   We know that carbon dioxide can be separated from air for the purposes of energy storage because plants exist.   Thus this strategy is worthy of consideration.

        I confess readily though, that this claim is right now a bit of handwaving on my part, since such technology does not exist.   I believe that some of the reversible fuel cells suggest a path to this technology, but clearly it will not exist in the appropriate time frame to address the climate change crisis.

        I will suggest some intermediate approaches, such as "twice through" carbon, wherein the first carbon dioxide for DME production is obtained using the capture/sequestration technology that is often proposed for use power plants.   In this case in the short term carbon dioxide originating from power plants is hydrogenated to replace oil with the constant goal of eliminating all fossil fuels, including natural gas, in the long term through capture from water or air.  

        This approach should be possible within a decade or two.  I note that it is the same technology on which all sequestration schemes are based.   Thus if separating carbon dioxide from fossil fuel waste streams (smokestacks) is not possible, neither is sequestration.

        •  So here's some hard stuff (0+ / 0-)

          I said that DME can be made from biomass but not that all of it must come from biomass.

          If we are to stop greenhouse emissions, it must come from biomass (or direct atmospheric capture).  I think it would be fantastic if these cells could run backwards at a reasonable efficiency and pull CO2 out of the air, but without a solid proof of concept we cannot depend on it.

          We should be putting money into R&D on everything that looks workable, but in the absence of proof we cannot make plans based on them.  We need to plan for zero fossil carbon use, and that rules out coal-to-DME.

          I am merely trying to show that a DME infrastructure can exploit all forms of renewable energy, including those that are generally defined as "renewable."

          "Ability to use" is not "sufficiency".

          I admit that I'm setting a higher standard, but if we're going to start reducing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere we have to go further than just using some biofuels.  We have to eliminate the release of fossil carbon to the atmosphere, or even engineer the sequestration of atmospheric carbon.

          Last, DME may make good diesel fuel but it's not the best use of carbon.  DME has a heat of combustion of 32 kJ/g, or about 350 kcal/mol.  That's 175 kcal per mole of carbon.  Methane yields 212 kcal per mole of carbon, or about 21% more.  Unless the conversion efficiency of DME is much higher, or the fuel cells can be configured to capture and store the carbon, DME is probably not the best choice of fuel.

          We know that carbon dioxide can be separated from air for the purposes of energy storage because plants exist.   Thus this strategy is worthy of consideration.

          This is very true, but it's also true that life is constrained by history.  Life never invented wheels or electric motors.  It's one thing to use biology as an existence proof, but another thing to demand that everything follow after some biological example.

          I believe that some of the reversible fuel cells suggest a path to this technology, but clearly it will not exist in the appropriate time frame to address the climate change crisis.

          If you are willing to break out of the biological framework, consider zinc-air cells.  Some are rechargeable.  Throughput appears to be about 50%.

          I will suggest some intermediate approaches, such as "twice through" carbon, wherein the first carbon dioxide for DME production is obtained using the capture/sequestration technology that is often proposed for use power plants.   In this case in the short term carbon dioxide originating from power plants is hydrogenated to replace oil with the constant goal of eliminating all fossil fuels, including natural gas, in the long term through capture from water or air.

          I suspect that the "twice through" model is being pushed by coal interests, who will benefit from this.  Unfortunately, the environment will not.  It will take about a 70% cut in emissions just to stabilize atmospheric levels of CO2, assuming that the existing warming trend does not turn current sinks into sources.  If the USA finds a way to replace all the 1.1 billion tons/year of carbon we burn as oil by recycling the 1 billion tons/year of coal we burn, we'll still be a long way short of where we need to be.

          This is why I'm hot on electricity.  It's already delivered almost everywhere (infrastructure is built and paid for), it is carbon-free at the point of use and can be at the point of production, and can displace 50% of motor-fuel use with relatively simple and cheap measures.  Amateurs are already hacking Priuses to do this.  I can see using something like nuclear plants and wind farms backed up by charcoal-fed direct-carbon fuel cells as the primary supplies for the grid, and the effluent of the DCFC's (and whatever uses the off-gas from the charcoal production) to feed a twice-through cycle.  If the only carbon inputs came from the atmosphere, the system cannot be worse than greenhouse neutral.  The product of the twice-through cycle can supply the needs electricity won't.

          That's the direction we have to go.  Any chemical fuel, DME included, runs into the problem of capturing enough carbon to supply our voracious demand.  Slashing lifestyle is not an option the body politic will vote for; to sell, it's got to be "cleaner, greener, still just as comfy!".

          I've got lots of hard numbers on this kind of thing at my blog.  If you can shoot holes in anything, I'll cheerfully correct or retract it.

          --
          Work the cold equations; some answers will make you feel warm.

          by Engineer Poet on Wed Oct 18, 2006 at 06:23:29 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Also hot on electricity ... (0+ / 0-)

            Seems that, for transportation, the #1 near term (next 5-10 years) will be effective plug-in hybrids -- and that can be on market by 2009 and massive in market by 2011 or so.  

            Government policy could help drive toward a faster penetration of these systems.

            9/11/2006 ... Day 1825, A count worth keeping? Or, Osama Bin Forgotten?

            by besieged by bush on Wed Oct 18, 2006 at 07:53:01 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

          •  Well, a 747 is not a bird. (0+ / 0-)

            I merely note that the equilibrium driven concentration of carbon dioxide (via it's reduction) is well known in plants.   The bird showed that such flight was feasible, the chloroplast shows that such chemistry is feasible.

            Methane is not a particularly acceptable fuel because of its transport cost owing to its critical temperature, which is cyrogenic.   Again the advantage of DME is that it is it has a critical temperature higher than boiling water.   In fact this is driving the Qatar and Iranian methane to DME industry now under construction, primarily for use in Japan and China.

            Moreover, DME has a short half-life in the atmosphere, meaning that it has essentially zero potential as a green house gas as the result of inevitable leaks.   Methane is the second most important greenhouse gas.

            I can tell you that the "twice through" means of using carbon dioxide occurred to me without any outside suggestion.  I assure you I am no coal interest.  I was working with polylysines and thought it would be an interesting application if coupled to supported metal catalysts.   It is speculative.

            I remind you that no infrastruce can be perfect.   We might quibble about details, but DME is clearly superior to diesels fuel; it is superior to coal; it is superior to natural gas.   There may be circumstances underwhich electric cars have a niche.   I am not so invested in DME as to oppose electric cars.   On the contrary, I'd like to see both types compete on their merits and drawbacks.

            DME is a very flexible fuel with broad application and, unlike electricity in many cases, portability.

            Right now the US uses about 41 exajoules of petroleum.    It also uses 46 exajoules of natural gas combined with coal.    It produces 12.1 exajoules of electricing from 27.1 exajoules of primary fossil fuels, 8.6 primary exajoules of nuclear energy, and 2.7 exajoules of hydroelectricity.  (0.04 exajoules come from "renewables").   Overall this suggests that electricity as a thermal efficiency of 31%.    This suggests - ignoring the nuclear case - that electricity isn't as clean as it is cracked up to be.

            I haven't provided the carbon numbers here, but it seems that we can eliminate at least 1 fossil fuel immediately by such an approach.   I recommend replacing oil with twice through carbon dioxde.   Any such device would ultimately require a phase out, but I know that nanotechnology will be able to provide fuel cells that will remove CO2 from the air.

            The electric car will only be as clean as its sources.   I live in New Jersey where we're 50% nuclear.   An electric car might make sense here.   If on the other hand I lived in Maine, where they have displaced nuclear with fossil fuels, another case might employ.   I'd be better off they converted the methane for their gas plants and put it in my diesel.

            •  Technology vs. vision (0+ / 0-)

              Methane is not a particularly acceptable fuel because of its transport cost owing to its critical temperature, which is cyrogenic.

              It's easily transported in pipelines (which already exist) and doesn't need to be liquefied; the gas has much greater energy density than compressed hydrogen.  But that's not the real problem.

              Again the advantage of DME is that it is it has a critical temperature higher than boiling water.   In fact this is driving the Qatar and Iranian methane to DME industry...

              Again:  fossil-dependent (farthest thing from renewable that it could be) and worse, supplied from the Middle East.

              DME has a short half-life in the atmosphere

              That might make it good as a secondary energy supply, but electricity has no significant effects on the atmosphere at all.  If you're making synthetic fuels, propane has about the same energy per mole of carbon and has greater energy density to boot.  It doesn't make good diesel fuel, but if you're going to install whole new fuel systems a new set of pistons and some spark plugs is easy.

              I can tell you that the "twice through" means of using carbon dioxide occurred to me without any outside suggestion.

              The list of beneficiaries and shortcomings don't depend on that.  I found the deficiencies of hydrogen as vehicle fuel by myself, and only recently discovered that the Ulf Bossel of the European Fuel Cell Forum had come to identical conclusions years before.  All that matters is that you follow the facts where they go.

              I remind you that no infrastruce [sic] can be perfect.   We might quibble about details, but DME is clearly superior to diesels fuel; it is superior to coal; it is superior to natural gas.

              Weren't you just talking about making DME from coal and natural gas?

              I currently drive a diesel, because it gave the least benefit to OPEC and had the least greenhouse emissions of anything I could get my hands on in 2004.  I've considered making biodiesel for it (haven't yet, not sure if I'm willing to risk damaging the fuel system while I learn the ropes).  But it appears that no system founded on carbon-based liquid fuels (ie, not ammonia or hydrogen gas) can be completely supplied from renewable resources and thus be carbon-neutral.

              The only thing that can really do that is electricity.  For over a century the electric vehicle has been limited (even crippled) by the small energy storage and cycle life of available storage batteries.  But all of that is changing:

              Batteries are clearly superior to DME for those things batteries can do.  That happens to be one hell of a lot; a hybrid with 60-mile all-electric range eliminates roughly 80% of current liquid-fuel requirements, and a semi-tractor carrying 1000 kg of A123systems lithium-ion cells packs 108 kWh, or the equivalent of about 6.6 gallons of diesel through a 40%-efficient engine.  If Wal-Mart achieves their goal of 13 miles per gallon, that's enough to run 86 miles.  If we could manage "charge-in-motion" systems to refill the batteries every 60 miles or so, that's enough to replace a huge fraction of liquid fuel needs with a carbon-free system.

              If politics will let the problem be solved, engineering is quite capable of solving it.

              Overall this suggests that electricity as a thermal efficiency of 31%.    This suggests - ignoring the nuclear case - that electricity isn't as clean as it is cracked up to be.

              Since you're talking about legacy systems which include unscrubbed coal-burning plants built in the 50's, you won't hear any arguments to the contrary from me.  But what we have is not what we could build.

              I recommend replacing oil with twice through carbon dioxde.   Any such device would ultimately require a phase out, but I know that nanotechnology will be able to provide fuel cells that will remove CO2 from the air.

              But can you do it soon enough?  I read "Engines of Creation" about 20 years ago, and we're still quite some ways from building our own carbon-fixing solar cell from scratch.  We don't have the luxury of waiting, and we have adequate technologies for all segments between the laboratory (but based on tech already tested at the pilot-plant level) and widespread deployment.  We need to start moving now.

              A vehicle and the infrastructure to run it represents a long-term investment.  An engine running on DME will be a carbon-emitter as long as it's in use, and the DME infrastructure does not yet exist.  I don't know the efficiency of conversion from e.g. coal to DME, but coal-to-syngas is about 76-78% efficient.  If we assume 65% efficiency and 45% at the engine, mine-to-wheels is a mere 29%.  Even the retrofitted Wabash River IGCC plant achieves ~40% mine-to-electricity, and an electric powertrain can manage 75% to the wheels.  An IGCC plant can sequester all the carbon captured at the syngas-cleanup stage, you can substitute wind power for coal-fired capacity, and the electric vehicles will be ready for any type of renewable electric power that comes along, nanotech or not.

              DME vehicles will not.  That's why I think they're a bad bet:  they bet the rent.

              --
              Work the cold equations; some answers will make you feel warm.

              by Engineer Poet on Sat Oct 21, 2006 at 07:51:00 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

  •  Energy... (0+ / 0-)

    The problem is the corporate energy interests remain tied to keeping the status quo.  

    Until we can show a potential technology that will obsolete hyrdo-carbons, these technologies will never obtain the funding required to make them feasible on a mass scale.  

    I also concur, I read through the entire article but could not find one compelling reason why this technology should be considered outside of it's application usage in diesal engines.

    More than likely, many of these technologies will not bear fruition until we really run out of hyrdo-carbons and these technologies are the only alternative.

    And that will be long after the future petroleum wars....

    •  Earlier, I showed that DME is already approved in (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      besieged by bush

      Japan for the displacement of natural gas in power applications.

      The Swedish report is focused primarily on DME as a motor fuel and not its other applications.  

      DME is being commercialized in both Iran and Qatar to facilitate the shipment of "stranded" natural gas as a liquid.   The high critical temperature of DME allows it to be shipped far more economically, and in fact, more safely, than one can ship natural gas.    The use of DME under these circumstances will be identical with the uses of LPG or natural gas.   It is usable as a cooking gas, for instance, and unlike hydrogen, burns with a visible blue flame.

      DME is also of use as a refrigerant.  

      It is a very, very, very flexible fuel with many applications far beyond diesel engines.

      I did not specifically note that the Olah fuel cell can run on DME as well as it can run on methanol.  Thus DME will have utility in electric vehicles as well, or in remote electricifation systems.   The reason for pursuing DME instead of methanol is that methanol is toxic and easily (and irreversibly) pollutes water supplies, whereas DME is non-toxic and is relatively easy to remove from water via aeration.

      I often hear of the pluses and minuses of energy technology being confused with the pluses and minuses of economic systems and economic justice.   The two issues are not really related.   Energy technology that works of interest to all humanity, capitalistic, socialistic, etc.   The possible exception is a subset of libertarian survivalist types who in general regard themselves as separate from the rest of humanity.    Even these types might find some use for DME if the Olah fuel cell is developed, though probably - regrettably - they'll stick with the intermediate methanol.

      •  What's the efficiency of this FC? (0+ / 0-)

        If you can do better than e.g. zinc-air, it'll kill as a replacement for conventional batteries.  But if you need external carbon capture or if the inefficiency of capturing dilute atmospheric CO2 cuts your energy return too far, we're probably better off basing systems on lithium-ion batteries and using other things only for backup.

        --
        Work the cold equations; some answers will make you feel warm.

        by Engineer Poet on Tue Oct 17, 2006 at 07:19:37 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  so many conspiracies (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    sacrelicious, mataliandy, walkshills

    I'm a big fan of high energy density (liquid) renewable fuels, and DME has some positive attributes going for it.  So does methanol itself, as well as ethanol, and maybe butanol, also.  My personal favorite is bio-oil made from pyrolysis of waste biomass resources.

    Why aren't these things taking off?  Is it because of the vast conspiracies of the petrochemical complex, directed by Dick Cheney?

    No, the answer is really quite complex.  It has to do with economics, with risk and perceived risk, with infrastructure, and a host of other socio-economic issues.  

    Unless and until we include environmental costs in the purchase cost of fuels, fossil fuels, especially petroleum, are going to be big favorites of the consumers.  Everyone wants a clean environment, but everyone wants someone else to pay for it.  This stuff is EXPENSIVE.  I know, I do research in this area.  

    DME?  alcohols?  Fisher-Tropsch liquids?  Biodiesel?    The final answer will be a mixture of all of these, and local economics will surely play a significant role.  

    Great work!  Keep it up!  I hope to see more of these posts.

    •  Personally (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      sacrelicious

      I'd love to see a 4-seater hybrid that runs well on bio-diesel or waste veggie oil. Sure, there's not enough waste veggie oil to power all the cars out there, but reducing or eliminating the cooking oil waste stream by using it to fuel highly efficient cars would be a nice two-fer in terms of environmental friendliness.

      Shut It Down Now!
      Beware the everyday brutality of the averted gaze.

      by mataliandy on Mon Oct 16, 2006 at 10:56:41 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Way outside my area of comfort (0+ / 0-)

    but I want to know and understand much more.  Keep it comin'.

  •  Fuel or Rule (last title word) (0+ / 0-)

    Be good to each other. It matters.

    by AllisonInSeattle on Mon Oct 16, 2006 at 11:35:20 PM PDT

  •  if it can be used as a storage (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    besieged by bush

    for the grid, it's very definitely worthwhile, this is a problem that is very definitely unsolved.

    Government funding at this point should concentrate on getting stuff already in the lab into pilot-plant development with an eye to putting whatever works best into production, it sounds like Volvo is either at or close to that report. I'll read that PDF you cite before expressing any further opinion about it.

    We've got a decade at best to get the best available energy solutions into production if we want to escape the worst consequences of global warming.

    As for hydrogen, the only use for it for the foreseeable future is as a BS detector, anyone who talks up the hydrogen economy can be considered totally ignorant about alternative energy and can be safely ignored.

    Looking for intelligent energy policy alternatives? Try here.

    by alizard on Tue Oct 17, 2006 at 04:44:56 AM PDT

    •  If the carbon must be collected as biomass... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      alizard

      you might be better off using direct carbon fuel cells instead of going through DME.

      Note that I don't care what gets the job done, so long as it gets done.  I just don't want effort channeled down a bunch of blind alleys and dissipated with internecine spats that the status quo winds up as the only system left standing.

      --
      Work the cold equations; some answers will make you feel warm.

      by Engineer Poet on Tue Oct 17, 2006 at 07:24:38 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  interesting, thanks (0+ / 0-)

        It's hard enough to keep up on developments in the area of research I'm working on (sewage biomass to biodiesel), let alone everyone else's.

        I particularly like this with biofuel, though with the approach I'm working on, scaling to cover US transportation needs gets interesting (not impossible, just difficult) and I'd rather not think of going from biomass to replacing coal for electric power.

        Looking for intelligent energy policy alternatives? Try here.

        by alizard on Tue Oct 17, 2006 at 07:56:43 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Can't anyway (0+ / 0-)

          The USA alone burns a billion tons of coal per year; it would take on the order of a billion and a half tons of biomass to replace its fuel value.

          One reason we need so much is because most coal is burned to make steam for electricity at ~33% efficiency.  If you can kick that up to 80% with a direct-carbon fuel cell, the problem is immediately cut by more than half.

          --
          Work the cold equations; some answers will make you feel warm.

          by Engineer Poet on Wed Oct 18, 2006 at 05:03:01 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  Wind-electricity-DME-electricity? (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    NNadir, Engineer Poet

    Your article makes it sound as though this is a 100% efficient process, while it is anything but. I still fail to understand the purpose of persuing fuel cell technology for automobiles. Why bother changing electricity to a liquid fuel and then back to electricity, much less worry about then further processing said fuel with hydrogen which also takes energy to produce. Battery technology is already advancing rapidly due to the computer and cell phone industries. Today a Li-ion battery can run a car, Tesla Roadster, for 250 miles and recharge in 3 hours. In the 20 years its going to take to develop hydrogen or DME fuels and fuel cells, batteries are going to be a cheaper and easier answer. Imagine gas stations with battery exchange rather than fueling for example.

    Where the electricity comes from is another matter. Wind? I don't think so. I dare say Nuclear.

  •  There are a number of reasons. Recharge is not (0+ / 0-)

    100% efficient either.  Here are the energy transformations involved in an electric car.  1)Converting chemical energy (at the power plant) to electrical energy with the carnot limits.   Even combined cycle plants - which does not cover all plants do not operate at better than 60% carnot efficiency.  2)  Then there are resistive losses depending on where the electricity is generated - which can be considerable depending on distance from the power plant.  3) Then there is a conversion to chemical potential (in the battery - also with thermodynamic heat losses).  4) The chemical energy is converted back to electrical energy (with heat loss)  5) finally mechanical energy (driving.)

    A (chemical) DME process involves 1) a chemical to chemical transformation (which can proceed at very high conversion and is not limited so much by carnot efficiency)  No power plant need be involved.   2)  transport with no resistive loss (although there is the energy loss of transport via pumping or tanker)  3)  Conversion of the chemical potential to electrical energy.  4)  Conversion of the electrical energy to chemical potential.

    Thus there are only 4 steps in the second (fuel cell) process incurring a thermodynamic penalty.   Moreover each of these steps are usually higher than corresponding conversions in the 5 step electrical battery step.

    Therefore there are excellent reasons for pursing a fuel cell idea, all of them thermodynamic, for use in automobiles.    This leaves aside the idea of whether automobiles themselves are a good idea - I think they really aren't - which is the bigger question.   If one insists on having automobiles however, a fuel cell is probably far superior to either a rechargeable battery or an internal combustion engine.

    Then there's the whole matter of convenience, which I leave aside except to note that no battery can be charged as quickly as a fuel tank can be filled.

    I note that I am specifically addressing a question asked about whether DME is compatible with renewable energy strategies, which may be more popular than wise.   I have said nothing about nuclear energy, which I emphatically support as it is the cleanest, safest, and most readily available source of energy there is, public perception to the contrary notwithstanding.

    I will discuss nuclear energy and DME in my next diary entry in this series.    In the nuclear case, the question can be formulated in terms of which infrastructure is superior and safer, hydrogen or DME.   I will argue that DME infrastructure is superior to the hydrogen infrastructure, justifying a (small) thermodynamic penalty.

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