From Paper to Trucks: First DME Renewable Fuel Plant Opens in Sweden
Last Thursday Chemrec launched the world’s first DME (dimethyl ether) fuel plant in Piteå, Sweden. The opening is a huge opportunity: Sweden’s forests support a large pulp and paper industry. The result is a byproduct, black liquor, which is toxic if dumped carelessly, but is a rich feedstock for DME, which can be used in diesel and gasoline engines. It burns cleanly, too, emitting 95% less emissions that fossil-based fuels. The past several years, Chemrec has worked with Volvo to test the viability of DME as a trucking fuel. Both companies believe up to half of Sweden’s trucking fleet could be powered by DME, and globally, as much 30 million cubic meters is available for production. They have one convert: Kyriakos Miniatis, the EU’s head of Energy Technologies and Research in Brussels. When I met him with a research partner a few years ago, he politely but skeptically suggested that DME did not have much of a future as a transportation fuel in the European Union. The logic was fairly straightforward: capital investment and logistics are a daunting issue, and DME is a byproduct of natural gas and coal production. The EU is trying to wean itself off of coal, and natural gas from North Africa and the Middle East is a dubious prospect for a region that seeks energy independence. Europe already has a headache with Russia’s occasional chest thumping. But last Thursday, Miniatis was enthusiastic, stating that the Chemrec plant’s opening was a “major step forward” for the global biofuels market.” The DME plant, which broke ground last year, is adjacent to a pulp and paper processor run by Smurfit Kappa. Volvo is serious about boosting DME: another plant is scheduled to open in Örnsköldsvik at a cellulose mill. The Chemrec-Volvo project is a textbook example of how renewable fuels like DME have a future with fleets, which need a steady fuel source and convenient refilling stations in order for such technologies to scale. Finally, jobs or environment are not an either-or proposition, as this project suggests. Environmental stewardship and fuel production together do indeed create possibilities. Photos courtesy of Chemrec's PR Department.