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Introduction to Dimethyl Ether
Dimethyl ether (DME) is produced from methanol created as a result of steam methane reformation (SMR). This process is called methanol dehydration. Due to its high octane number, DME burns cleanly with few emissions even though it is a hydrocarbon fuel. As mentioned previously, DME can be blended with LPG or diesel and can readily be used as a substitute for either. Only minor modifications are needed to run diesel engines with DME due to its low boiling point (-25º C) and viscosity. DME also has a much higher energy density than hydrogen or ammonia and can be stored under moderate pressure. Still, DME is around 30% less energy efficient than other hydrocarbon fuels. Current DME prices are high and demand is fairly low due to limited production and specialized use. Demand is expected to grow, however, especially in Asian markets.
Though the feedstock for commercial DME production is currently coal or natural gas, like ammonia, DME can be produced from renewable energy resources, primarily biomass. This is often called BioDME. Also similar to ammonia, DME has industrial applications other than as a fuel, namely as an aerosol propellant, a refrigerant, and as a precursor to other industrial chemicals. Significant additional research and development remains to be done to determine if DME will become the renewable diesel substitute of choice. In addition, there are multiple synthesis methods to produce DME, each with varying costs and benefits, that will ultimately determine the desirability of DME as a diesel substitute. Global companies such as Mitsubishi, Volvo and Toyo Engineering are investing significantly in DME and BioDME.
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