A Fuel of the Future

Danish Dar, University of Alberta ddar@ualberta.ca

D. Dar was also a 3MT participant. Watch the presentation here.

Keywords: fuel, cars, climate, global warming, pollution

Imagine a world where the sky was filled with nothing but smoke and pollution (Figure 1) and you had to wear a gas mask just to be able to breathe.

Figure 1

Figure 1

That’s a harsh reality soon to come IF we don’t do anything about the fuel in our cars. The very fuel in our vehicles are polluting our environment and making the air we breathe toxic to life (Figure 1). Conventional fossil fuels are large producers of carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxides (NOX), sulphur oxides (SOX), and particulate matter (PM) which are significant contributors to global warming. But there is another fuel out there that many researchers and scientists are calling “The Fuel of the Future” and it’s called Di-methyl ether (DME). As DME does not comprise of any sulphur compounds it produces no sulphur oxides (the cause of acid rain) [2]. It also burns soot-free (smokeless) and produces low amounts of nitrogen oxides (causes acid rain and smog) [2]. DME quickly decomposes into CO2 and water in the atmosphere making it an environmentally friendly fuel [2]. You can even make DME from a lot of different waste -- garbage from landfills, byproducts from paper mills, and even manure [3]! The problem is that there is no cheap way of mass producing this fuel at a high enough purity so that the vehicles on the road can start using DME.

How it works is that usually a chemical reaction is limited because it wants to maintain equilibrium. Because of equilibrium only a set yield of DME can be produced [4]. Think of equilibrium as a balance scale that always wants to be perfectly balanced with products like DME on one side and reactants or raw materials on the other. If there is too much on either side, the balance will start to convert the heavier side to the lighter side until it goes back to being balanced. This means if we try to increase the yield of DME product in the reactor the equilibrium limitation will just convert the increased DME back into the reactants or raw materials that it was produced from.

We’ve found a new method that can bypass equilibrium limitations by continuously siphoning the DME products out of the reactor using a process known as reactive distillation. Think of it as a straw constantly drawing out the products from one side of the balance scale while not letting it become balanced (equilibrium). Using computer simulations we can determine how much chemicals we need to add, what temperature and pressure to keep the reactor, and how much catalyst we need to get the purest product possible before doing a single experiment. Once the simulations show accurate results to experiments it’s a simple change of a few simulation variables and we can accurately predict how much concentrated DME we can produce if we were to scale up to start mass producing for cities and hopefully one day countries. So that the next time you go to fill up your car, you can fill it up with DME. Because if we don’t do anything about the fuel in our cars now, it’s only a matter of time before we all have to start wearing gas masks.


[1] US EPA. (n.d.). Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data | US EPA. [Internet] Available at: https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/global-greenhouse-gas-emissions-data

[2] Lin, A. Development and implementation a methodology for the production of dimethyl ether from methanol by catalytic distillation 2013. Edmonton: University of Alberta.

[3] Singh, Gurmit. Exploit Nature-Renewable Energy Technologies. Delhi: Aditya Books Pvt. Ltd,

[4] Sundmacher, K., & Kienle, A.. Reactive distillation: Status and future directions. 2006. Weinheim: Wiley-VCH.