Sempra Energy’s Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas) unit said Wednesday it has joined a San Diego-based low-emission alternative fuels company, Oberon Fuels, in a research and development (R&D) effort centered on a potential transportation fuel derived from natural gas called “Dimethyl Ether (DME).”

The joint R&D agreement is aimed at designing and constructing the first DME dispensing facility in the United States. Oberon is a privately funded technology firm focused on developing small-scale, skid-mounted units that produce DME.

The partners are attempting to expand current alternative transportation fuel options by taking DME into a new area. It is currently used as an environmentally friendly gas aerosol propellant in consumer products, an Oberon spokesperson said. Research on DME as an alternative to diesel fuel began in the 1990s, and Oberon said worldwide production of DME has increased dramatically during the last decade.

“Using DME primarily as a blend stock for propane gas, China has driven the growth in demand and prompted large plants to be built throughout Asia and the Middle East,” the Oberon spokesperson said.

Oberon and SoCalGas see DME as filling some of the fueling needs of the 11 million medium- and heavy-duty trucks operating in the United States. They said several truck manufacturers have been testing new DME trucks for several years with excellent results, and existing diesel trucks can be retrofitted for DME with what they call “only modest modifications.”

Oberon Fuels CEO Neil Senturia said his company sees DME as a “cleaner substitute” for both diesel and propane.

SoCalGas is looking to support the development and deployment of various clean alternative transportation fuels, according to Hal Snyder, vice president of customer solutions at the Los Angeles-based utility, the nation’s largest gas distributor.

“Fifty billion gallons of diesel fuel are consumed annually in the United States, and the trucking industry is looking for cost-effective solutions that meet the rigorous air quality standards and support the common goal of cleaner air,” Snyder said. “Using natural gas as a feedstock for DME is just another environmentally beneficial use for natural gas, an abundant, cost-effective and domestic fuel.”

He said DME could be complementary to other natural gas transportation uses.

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