Skip to Content

Sustainable fuels

Volatile stuff for heavy trucks

Nov 24, 2020 | RAINER KLOSE

In future, commercial vehicles will not only have to emit less CO2 but also meet stricter exhaust emission limits. Many experts expect that this could herald the end for fossil diesel. One possible alternative is dimethyl ether: The highly volatile substance burns very cleanly and can be produced from renewable energy. Empa is investigating this new powertrain concept using a special test engine.

The energy requirements of long-distance trucks can hardly be covered by batteries. Combustion engines are difficult to replace in this case. Image: istock

Operating a fleet of trucks is a tough business. Forget trucker romance; strong competition and high price pressure is the name of the game. Increasingly strict environmental regulations aiming at lower CO2 emissions and strict exhaust gas values, especially with regard to nitrogen oxides (NOX), will further intensify pressure on the industry in the years ahead. If truck operators do not rely on the latest technology, they will have to fear increased tolls or tax disadvantages in numerous countries.

Many commercial vehicle manufacturers and operators are now considering alternative powertrain systems to improve the environmental performance of their fleets. However, electric drives are hardly suitable for commercial vehicles in long-distance operation: The batteries would be too heavy, the charging times too long and the required charging power too high for competitive use. Hydrogen could solve this problem: As of September 2020, the first Hyundai fuel cell trucks are in commercial test operation in Switzerland. Synthetic natural gas from surplus green electricity is also under investigation: From 2021 the first natural gas trucks will be refuelled at Empa's mobility demonstrator, move. But there is another alternative that would be suitable for long-distance transport and that deserves closer examination: dimethyl ether or DME, in short.

Favorable infrastructure, clean combustion
Eco-tuning: The diesel engine on the Empa test facility was tuned to DME. Image: Empa

DME is produced on a scale of several tens of thousand tons annually. The chemical is used as a propellant in spray cans and serves as a component of refrigerants in cooling systems. DME is also widely used as an intermediate product in the chemical industry. Its advantage is that it can be produced at low costs and almost loss-free from methanol, which in turn can be cheaply produced using electricity from solar and wind energy. DME thus offers the opportunity to make trucks CO2-neutral.

Another advantage: DME has similar properties to liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). Unlike hydrogen, it can be transported and stored in standard tanks under low pressure in liquid form. The technology for LPG refueling stations, and thereby also for DME, is inexpensive, it is known worldwide and has already been in use for decades. What's more, since DME contains chemically bound oxygen, the substance burns particularly clean and with little soot formation.

Testing in a modified truck engine


There have already been trials with DME as a fuel in the past: Volvo Trucks has been conducting field trials with experimental trucks powered by DME in Sweden and the US since 2013. In Germany, a research project coordinated by the Ford Research and Innovation Center Aachen has been running since 2016. The engine has been fitted and tested in a Ford Mondeo.

Empa, together with FPT Motorenforschung AG Arbon, Politechnico di Milano, lubricant manufacturer Motorex and other partners, will now extend the knowledge gained thus far. Since early July 2020, the test engine has been in operation on a dynamometer in Empa's Automotive Powertrains Technologies Laboratory. The scientists intend to provide sound data on the combustion process, efficiency and environmental impact of DME in the commercial vehicle sector.

"We already know this engine very well," says project leader Patrik Soltic. "The engine block is derived from a Cursor 11 commercial vehicle engine manufactured by FPT Industrial and has already served us for five years in various research projects. Over the past few months, we have converted it to DME together with our partner FPT." This wasn't easy: In contrast to diesel, the highly volatile DME has almost no lubricating qualities, which would have quickly destroyed the high-pressure pump of the common rail injection system.

Operation without fuel additives

The researchers want to run their test engine with pure DME, without using lubricating additives, as has been done in previous projects. In cooperation with a major European supplier, a new oil-lubricated common-rail pump had therefore been developed. In addition, the valves and valve seat inserts were converted to materials suitable for DME. An electrically driven compressor for precise exhaust gas recirculation is also used. Finally, the combustion chambers and compression ratio of the former diesel engine have also been modified. The new shape of the combustion chambers was developed with the help of mathematical simulations at the Politechnico di Milano. The research project is co-financed by the Swiss Federal Office of Energy (FOEN).

Fuel from the eco-factory

Dimethyl ether (DME), the eco-fuel for compression ignition engines, can be produced from hydrogen and CO2. If hydrogen is produced with renewable energy and CO2 is captured from the atmosphere, trucks could be driven with virtually no greenhouse gas emissions.

Empa researcher Andreas Borgschulte and his team are investigating chemical processes that produce DME as efficiently as possible. The method of sorption-assisted catalysis is considered to be very promising: The two gaseous starting materials, hydrogen and CO2, need to get in contact with active copper particles in order to start the chemical reaction to form methanol or DME. Water is formed as a by-product. If water is removed from the reaction mixture, the chemical equilibrium shifts towards the product. In other words: Only then can the desired large quantities of methanol and DME be produced. To remove water, Empa researchers use zeolite, a water-absorbing mineral.

In lab experiments Borgschulte's team found that, at a certain temperature, CO2 and hydrogen mainly produce DME, with only a rather small amount of methanol. "DME production using this method is therefore theoretically feasible," says Borgschulte, adding: "Unfortunately, at present the process is not yet very efficient." The next step would thus be to refine the chemical process and develop suitable production facilities. Only then can we assess whether DME production using sorption-assisted catalysis is economically competitive.

The research was carried out in collaboration with the University of Zurich as part of the LightChEC project.

Simulated highway operation

"Now we want to get to know the engine with the new fuel," says Soltic. The researchers are starting with a medium-load driving style that is common in highway operation, where the engine must deliver 100 kW of power. "Then we modify the timing and pressure of the injection, among other things, and look at exhaust emission values and fuel consumption." The first results are very promising. The experimental engine runs stable in all engine load ranges, produces practically no soot particles and significantly lower NOx values than a diesel. This leads to a significantly more compact and cost efficient exhaust gas aftertreatment system, even for future extremely strict pollutant emission limits.

The big advantage of DME operation, says Soltic, is the opportunity to transfer a very high proportion of exhaust gas to the next charge in the cylinder. This is done through so-called exhaust gas recirculation (EGR). This technology makes it possible to save a great deal of NOx, which eases the burden on the exhaust gas purification system behind the engine and allows future, stricter limits to be met easily. With fossil diesel, high exhaust gas recirculation rates lead to higher particle emissions, which is not the case with DME.

During the test phase, Empa researchers repeatedly take samples of the engine oil to trace chemical reactions The results are forwarded to project partner Motorex who uses the data to develop a new engine oil specially adapted for DME operation.

Joint research among competitors

"We are currently still in the pre-competitive phase of our research," Soltic explains. The results of the project are partly public and are discussed jointly among competitors in the vehicle industry. The platform for these discussions is the "International DME Association" founded in 2001, which currently has 50 members from science and industry. "But at some future stage everyone will want to keep their results to themselves," the Empa researcher says. "At that point, it is crucial for us to have a good understanding of the technology in order to be able to continue providing valuable input as a research partner for industry".

Editor / Media contact

Follow us on Social Media
COVID-19 research at Empa

"These results are crucial for the future corona vaccination strategy"

Efforts are being made worldwide to combat the new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Vaccines and protective masks are of prime importance. Empa researcher Peter Wick, Head of the Particles-Biology Interactions Laboratory in St. Gallen, talks to Empa Quarterly about recent antibody studies, which are crucial for the development of a COVID-19 vaccine, and the next generation of textile protective materials that inactivate or even kill corona viruses. More. (Image: Empa) 

When damaged ropes change color

Hanging by a colored thread

High-performance fibres that have been exposed to high temperatures usually lose their mechanical properties undetected and, in the worst case, can tear precisely when lives depend on them. For example, safety ropes used by fire brigades or suspension ropes for heavy loads on construction sites. Empa researchers have now developed a coating that changes color when exposed to high temperatures through friction or fire. More. (Image: iStock)

Particulate matter

Braking dust

Brake disc and tire abrasion are increasingly moving into the focus of public health experts and engineers. There is another problem, though: How can the quantity and size of brake dust particles be measured correctly? Empa researchers are currently developing a sophisticated method. More. (Image: Empa)

Quick Access

Read the latest Empa Quarterly!