Meet the rather fabulous President of Oberon Fuels, find out what DME stands for, and discover how science and entrepreneurship could green up the trucking industry…

Driving a Volvo DME-powered truck in Gothenburg, Sweden. In Elie Tahari heels!
Driving a Volvo DME-powered truck in Gothenburg, Sweden. In Elie Tahari heels!

How has your career developed and how did you end up in renewable fuels?

I was born in New Orleans, and grew up in Louisiana, in the Southern US. My grandmother was a war bride from the Philippines and she has the thickest Cajun accent. We joke that we’re Asian Cajun! Education was really important. My parents told us we had to go to college, but that we had to pay for it. So I got a scholarship to the University of Southern Mississippi where I started out in nursing. But by the second year I realised I didn’t want to be a nurse, and was considering medical school, so had to decide what to major in. Whilst exploring the different options available I discovered polymer science, which is basically studying really big molecules that can be used in things from materials to medical applications. That’s how it all began.

In the university holidays you could apply for research programmes across the US. The first summer I was lucky enough to go to Princeton; I think because I had a unique major and focus on materials. The next I went to MIT. I discovered how much I loved research and ended up doing a PhD at the University of Massachusetts, which has the best polymer science school in the US.

But it took me a little while to finish… just before I completed my PhD I started up a biotech company with colleagues focused on new materials and making existing cancer drugs work better. The problem with many chemotherapy drugs is that they kill healthy and cancerous cells indiscriminately – they can’t tell the difference. We developed a new material in this space that helped get the drug to the right cells. After selling my stake a few years later I went back to school and finally finished my PhD.

I discovered Oberon Fuels a couple of years later when the company was just five months old. I’d never worked in the energy space before, didn’t know anything about fuels, the energy regulatory environment, or anything about trucking! It was and sometimes still is overwhelming, but one of the advantages of being a molecular scientist was learning new languages– how to communicate with people working in different disciplines.

One day you’d be working with chemists to create new molecules, the next talking to biologists about how they might work in the body. There are always people to help you, but you have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

The Oberon DME process.

What is DME and why is it so promising? 

DME stands for dimethyl ether, which is a clean-burning, non-toxic, potentially renewable fuel. It’s been produced for over 30 years in countries like China, Japan, Egypt and Brazil, mainly mixed with propane to use as a cooking fuel. It was used in these countries because propane was expensive to import. We didn’t really use it in the US because propane is relatively inexpensive.

But in the 1990s an engineer doing research into DME decided to take some home one day and try it in his lawnmower. It was a spark-ignited engine, and the lawnmower ran but it was knocking, and he couldn’t get the engine to stop until he cut the fuel line. He didn’t put two and two together right away, but a team at Amoco led by Dr. Theo Fleisch led a project and tried it in a diesel engine. It turned out to be an excellent diesel replacement.

DME has a structure of carbon-oxygen-carbon and some hydrogens. Because there’s no direct bond between carbon atoms, when it combusts there’s no soot – it burns cleaner.

There’s also no sulphur and low levels of nitrogen oxides, and whilst it does still produce carbon dioxide, it’s at much, much lower quantities. In the BioDME project in Europe, Volvo demonstrated a 95% reduction in carbon dioxide when using DME made from paper industry waste. Not only is it radically cleaner, the performance of the engine is on a par with diesel.

There are other advantages too – the trucking industry is having to add more and more equipment to their diesel engines to make them burn cleaner, whereas DME does not require most of this additional equipment. Therefore, you are working with simpler engines: cheaper and easier. DME is also comparable on cost given the rising cost of oil; when DME was first discovered, oil was about $15-20/barrel, but it’s now more like £100/barrel.

I was at a trucking show the other day and two guys walked by. Upon seeing Volvo’s DME-powered truck, one asked his friend what DME was and the other replied, “It’s some magic fuel”! I didn’t correct them…

DME dispensing system with Volvo DME-powered trucks in the background. DME handles like propane, so it requires simple fueling infrastructure which translates to lower costs for building out infrastructure.

What does Oberon Fuels do?

Oberon Fuels is a start-up making DME from waste streams to power the trucking industry. We have a pilot plant in Imperial Valley, California, outside San Diego. It’s a huge farming region, where about 80% of the US winter crop is grown. That means there’s a lot of agricultural waste, and that’s one of the raw materials for our process. In the future we plan to use food waste too – we are starting to see landfill diversion legislation in the US which will mean more opportunities and materials.

The 10,000 gallon/day production plant we have will fuel about 80-100 trucks engaged in regional hauling every day. We’re partnering with Volvo Trucks and Safeway supermarkets to test trucks and fuelling systems and engaging with the state government in California to get the fuel licenced. In the state of California, there hasn’t been a brand new fuel certified since 1992. California has been a great partner in moving this fuel towards commercialisation. Our vision is for a regional distributed production systems initially in states across the US and then around the world, and we believe that in 10 years DME will be competing head to head with diesel.  

On the left is a picture of our pilot plant, which is the last step of our process. Building it enabled us to test our proprietary, catalytic distillation column, the first known DME catalytic distillation column in the world.

Oberon co-founder and friend Elliot Hicks, friend Sunny Webb, and Rebecca ran the Mardi Gras Marathon in Feb. 2014 and raised money to send a Malawian girl, Madalitso, to high school for a year. The three will be running the NYC Marathon in November. She is raising $40,000 to build a girls hostal in the village of Madisi in Malawi, so the girls do not have to walk as far. Some students walk an hour each way to school, and it is particularly unsafe for young girls.

What’s it like being a woman in your industry?

Going to trucking shows is very entertaining. I’m not easily offended and as a female chemist you’re heavily outnumbered, so I got used to it early on! At the shows there’s this term ‘booth babe’ – women who are paid to be attractive and sell things. People would assume I was one and come up to me to say things you shouldn’t ever say!

Earlier this year, I was attending an industry event, and a gentleman I didn’t know walked up to me and asked if I was “the DME girl”. He was an executive of a significant company. DME girl? Couldn’t I be at least the DME lady? Woman? After telling this story to several of my colleagues, they decided that I should be the “DME Queen”. Next time, I will make sure they recognise royalty!

I love my job and this industry. What other job allows you to drive huge trucks at conferences? And in high heels? At trucking shows they always have “ride and drives” on a closed course. I remember the first show I went to in Baltimore, Maryland. I had a Marc Jacobs plaid shirt on with ruffles and some red high heels. I boldly walked up to the biggest truck, but inside I was worried because I’ve backed into a pole before! My hands were glued to the steering wheel, but it was fine.

Women bring a different dynamic to building teams. It’s often easier for women to get people to work together, and there’s a stronger element of collaboration because there’s less ego involved. Having a mix of men and women in the team is very important. You can choose to be intimidated, or ask yourself: I am unique, what can I bring? And it’s important to look at the funny side of it all. 

Some of the amazing children from Malawi.

What are you passionate about outside work?

I love to travel off the beaten path, cook healthy delicious cuisine from all over the world, and run marathons. I sit on the board of Urban Promise International, which works with children to break the poverty cycle. It started in Camden, New Jersey, which has one of the highest murder rates in the US. They also have six sites in Malawi, Africa, and I was lucky to go out there a couple of months ago. It was an amazing opportunity to walk in those children’s shoes and understand what they were faced with.

And I’m getting married next year to a wonderful man also in the renewable energy industry! My fiancé is Portuguese, so we’re trying to choose a venue in beautiful Portugal for next year.