Oberon Fuels plant begins commercial production

Oberon Fuels’ pilot DME production plant in Brawley, prior to its upgrade to a commercial facility. COURTESY PHOTO

BRAWLEY — Renewable energy manufacturer Oberon Fuels announced Thursday that upgrades to its facility on Kershaw Road are complete and that it is now engaged in the first commercial production of renewable dimethyl ether (rDME) in the United States.

John Williams, a spokesman for San Diego-based Oberon Fuels, said rDME production at the Brawley facility began May 27.

Dimethyl ether is a clean-burning, ultra-low-carbon transportation fuel generated from converting commercial-grade methanol via a reactive distillation process. Since 2013, Oberon had been involved in a pilot project at its plant here to produce the first fuel-grade DME in North America.

As part of a $6 million project funded in part by a grant from the California Energy Commission, Oberon is converting waste methanol into rDME at its Brawley facility. It is the first time this feedstock has been used to make rDME at commercial scale. In addition to waste methanol, other potential feedstocks include biogas from dairy waste, food wastes, agricultural waste, as well as excess electricity and CO2, resulting in ultra-low carbon to carbon-negative DME, the company said.

The plant is expected to produce 1.6 million gallons of DME from more than 5,500 metric tons of waste material when operating at full capacity.

“This is a critical step on the path to decarbonizing the transportation sector,” said Elliot Hicks, chief operating and technology officer and an Oberon Fuels co-founder. “Our innovative approach uses waste resources to create a flexible molecule that can reduce emissions from fossil fuels, as well as create entirely new, super-clean fuels.”

Oberon said renewable DME has multiple pathways to reducing the carbon footprint of the transportation sector: as a diesel replacement, as a blend with propane and as an energy-dense, cost-effective way to move renewable hydrogen. rDME can help overcome some of the biggest barriers inhibiting the widespread use of hydrogen for transportation fuel, including access to renewable feedstocks; modular, scalable production; and energy-dense, cost-effective storage and transport. Once delivered, rDME can be converted to renewable hydrogen at the point of use.

DME is a hydrogen-rich molecule that handles like propane, or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). It can be produced at or near renewable feedstock sources using Oberon’s modular production technology. This novel approach to renewable hydrogen production promises similarities to the influence that distributed, rooftop solar has had on decentralizing industrial power generation.

Moreover, because rDME is compatible with LPG, it requires minimal modifications to the existing global LPG distribution network and workforce, which have been safely handling and transporting similar molecules for more than a century.

On Sept. 17, 2020 Oberon announced a strategic partnership with SHV Energy, the world’s largest distributor of propane, as well as Suburban Propane Partners’ acquisition of a 39 percent stake in the company.

“As one of the longest-standing propane companies in the United States, Suburban Propane is committed to offer our time-honored network, expertise and infrastructure to support Oberon Fuels in leading the way towards the future of our industry,” said Michael Stivala, president and chief executive Officer of Suburban Propane Partners.

“Oberon’s production of renewable DME is not only a milestone for the company, it’s also a breakthrough for the global LPG industry as we seek new approaches to meet increasing customer and regulatory demands for cleaner fuels,” Stivala continued. “Propane is already known for its versatile, cost-effective and clean burning attributes. Given the compatibility of these two molecules, we can immediately offer an even cleaner alternative for the transportation sector and beyond.”

“The spirit of innovation and perseverance is strong in the Imperial Valley,” said Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachela, a member of the California Air Resources Board. “Oberon and our community partners, including Imperial County Workforce and Economic Development, the Imperial Valley Economic Development Corporation, the operations team at the plant, and the local workers who labored on the upgrade, have shown us what is possible when we work together. We celebrate the completion of this milestone, and look forward to the utilization of renewable DME towards achieving our emission reduction goals and the role our region can play in powering vehicles across the state.”

“By achieving this important milestone, we can turn our focus to getting rDME in the hands of customers to reduce the carbon intensity of propane and diesel fuels,” said Bipin Patel, vice president of engineering at Oberon Fuels. “More importantly, we will be able to leapfrog today’s energy-intense, fossil-driven approaches to renewable hydrogen production from a variety of wastes and other renewable sources to further deliver on our mission of decarbonizing transportation."

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