What molecule am I?
Dimethyl ether (DME), a colorless gas, is the simplest aliphatic ether. Also called methyl ether, it is currently produced by dehydrating methanol; but researchers have an eye on it for sustainable production from biogenic methane or biomass derived from cellulose or lignin.
DME is primarily used to make other small molecules such as acetic acid or dimethyl sulfate. It is also a spray-can propellant1 and a refrigerant to replace chlorofluorocarbons. It has been proposed as a cleaner-burning fuel than hydrocarbons.
Far beyond its terrestrial presence, DME was a significant recent discovery in outer space. In March, researchers at Leiden University (the Netherlands) used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array telescope to identify the molecule in a planet-forming disc in the constellation Ophiuchus, 444 light-years from Earth. With nine atoms, DME is the largest molecule yet observed in space.
Always optimistic, some astrobiologists have speculated that the presence of DME could be an indicator of life “out there”.
1. Erik Rotheim, the Norwegian inventor of the spray can, cited the use of DME in one of his patents, US 1,800,156, in 1931.
Learn more about this molecule from CAS, the most authoritative and comprehensive source for chemical information.