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Australia CSIRO and India CSIR launch A$6M partnership on dimethyl ether

Australia’s CSIRO and its equivalent in India, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (), have a three-year, A$6-million (US$5.6-million) collaboration focused on improving processes involved in the production of dimethyl ether (DME), a clean-burning synthetic liquid fuel.

DME is non-toxic and non-carcinogenic and can be produced from natural gas (NG), coal, biomass, or even directly from carbon dioxide. It offers diesel-quality performance with a high cetane number and low auto-ignition temperature, but burns cleanly without producing any soot. The carbon intensity of the DME will vary with the feedstock.

In addition to CSIRO and the CSIR Indian Institute of Petroleum (CSIR-IIP), the project will draw on the expertise of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT-Roorkee), Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited (BPCL), The Centre of Advanced Materials and Industrial Chemistry (CAMIC) at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, and the University of Melbourne.

The project is being jointly funded by the Australian and Indian governments, through the Australia-India Strategic Research Fund () as one of the latest Grand Challenge winners.

Both Australia and India are currently unable to meet demand for petroleum products with domestic production alone. The research partners envision that DME could help meet demand and consequently reduce both nations’ reliance on imported petroleum products.

There are over half a million vehicles currently using liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) in Australia, all of which could be powered using DME. The fact that DME can be used as a blend in existing LPG engines makes it an effective transitional fuel. Australia’s heavy reliance on diesel could also be lessened with the added possibility of DME being able to replace diesel in the future.

—CSIRO’s Dr. Nick Burke

Dr. M.O. Garg, the leader of the Indian consortium, said that India’s demand for LPG is currently unable to be met by domestic production. In India, LPG is currently used for cooking in more than 33 million homes and demand is increasing with imports rising rapidly, Dr. Garg added.

Prof. Paul Webley from The University of Melbourne said in addition to the economic benefits, DME will provide significant environmental benefits for both countries, such as reducing urban pollution due to the fuel’s cleaner-burning attributes.

The research will also assist in the development of small plants that may be suitable in remote and rural areas.

More efficient processing of gas into transportable fuels at remote locations would make Australia and India's remote gas reserves more economically viable.

—Prof. Suresh Bhargava RMIT

At an event in Sacramento, California, earlier this year, Volvo Trucks announced that it will commercialize dimethyl ether (DME)-powered heavy-duty commercial vehicles in North America, with limited production beginning in 2015. Volvo also revealed ongoing customer field testing of DME trucks in the US (with Safeway and Martin Transportation), as well as its partnership in the customer trials with startup DME producer Oberon Fuels. Oberon Fuels is the first company to announce plans to commercialize DME fuel production in North America. (Earlier post.)

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