Earlier this week, a story out of England reported that scientists have created renewable propane in the lab. The story was picked up by a few energy and environmental reporters, bloggers, and twitter users.
I’ve followed such research for a number of years. In 2010, PERC funded its own research into the possibility of creating propane from renewable feedstock. Also, through PERC’s involvement with the Global Technology Network at the World LP Gas Association, we’ve studied research performed in Europe, Japan, and China on DME (dimethyl ether), which can be created through renewable processes and blended into propane.
Perhaps it is just a coincidence that this week San Diego-based Oberon Fuels announced that EPA approved its renewable DME for use in commercial vehicle applications. “One of the exciting attributes of DME is that, at its core, DME is a simple fuel,” said Elliot Hicks, Oberon’s co-founder and chief operating officer. “It requires a simple diesel engine and has simple propane-like handling properties.”
Of course, when the U.S. is awash in conventional sources of propane, one might ask why be interested in creating renewable sources? Renewable energy sources typically are more costly, hence they often need subsidies or mandates to approach being economical. So why be interested? Because it’s all about the long term.
Conventional propane is made as a byproduct of natural gas processing and oil refining. Ultimately, those fossil fuels are finite. We don’t know when we’ll reach peak oil or peak natural gas, but that day eventually will come. Clearly, as drilling technology has advanced, the day we’ll run out of oil and natural gas has been pushed further into the future. Knowing that propane can be produced through renewable means offers assurance that investments made today for propane infrastructure and utilization equipment can be sustained or even expanded beyond the limits of conventional sources.
Of course, using propane now offers environmental benefits even from conventional sources. For instance, as a vehicle motor fuel, propane autogas produces 17 to 25 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions and 20 percent fewer smog-causing nitrogen oxides than gasoline. Renewable propane and propane-DME blends promise even greater emissions reductions. That’s an important path to be on.