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ClearFlame Engine Technologies: Can low-carbon renewable liquid fuels replace diesel in America’s trucking infrastructure?

Can low-carbon renewable liquid fuels replace diesel in America’s trucking infrastructure?

ClearFlame Engine Technologies modifies the ubiquitous diesel engine so that it can run on a clean alternative

Diesel engines are responsible for a huge amount of important work across the world. Food is harvested by agricultural machines and delivered to stores by trucks that burn diesel. Metals and minerals that power our cell phones and computers are mined and distributed through the supply chain with the help of diesel-driven engines.

There is, of course, a downside to burning this fossil fuel.

Diesel engines produce large quantities of carbon emissions. Approximately 10% of all CO2 emissions in the U.S. are generated by diesel trucks, accounting for 472 million metric tons of CO2 per year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

If we intend to meet our goals for reducing the amount of carbon that is put into the atmosphere, the diesel engine presents an important site for innovation.

ClearFlame Engine Technologies, a company based outside Chicago and founded by two doctoral graduates of Stanford University, has developed a technology that modifies diesel engines so that they can run on clean, renewable fuels, such as ethanol, a biofuel produced from crops like corn and sugar cane, or methanol.

The company’s innovations can significantly reduce carbon emissions for diesel engines, while providing the same performance and at a lower cost.

A Balancing Act

While at Stanford, ClearFlame’s co-founders, B.J. Johnson, Ph.D., chief executive officer, and Julie Blumreiter, Ph.D., chief technology officer, were struck by an insight from their advisor. Energy presents an extremely complex problem with both technical and societal considerations. While reducing emissions is necessary to stabilize climate change, there are more than 700 million people in the world who lack access to electricity and the enormous benefits it affords to human quality of life.

“If we’re serious about making the world a better place, it doesn’t only mean making the world more sustainable; it also means making the world better for more people,” Johnson said.

“Diesel engines represent one of our best and most powerful tools in terms of the power they provide and the goods they deliver,” Johnson added. “We set out to decouple the economic and quality-of-life value of the diesel engine from its sustainability challenges.”

A Solution for Today

Although adoption of electric passenger vehicles is increasing in the U.S., electric powertrains aren’t yet practical today for tasks that require heavy power and high equipment uptime, such as long-haul trucking. Indeed, the electrification of America’s heavy duty trucking fleet could be decades away.

“ClearFlame not only offers an immediate solution, but its trucks emit less CO2 per mile than an electric-powered truck using average grid electricity,” Johnson said. “And we can get these benefits at a lower operating cost than current petroleum-fueled fleets.”

The company’s innovative technology integrates easily into existing equipment, service, repair and refueling infrastructures.

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BJ Johnson, Ph.D.

Co-Founder & CEO

Julie Blumreiter, Ph.D.

Co-Founder & CTO
of all CO2 emissions in the U.S. are produced by diesel trucks
0 %
long-haul diesel trucks on U.S. roads today
0 M

If we’re serious about making the world a better place, it doesn’t only mean making the world more sustainable. It also means making the world better for more people.

BJ Johnson

Co-Founder & CEO

By ClearFlame’s estimates, there are more than 4 million long-haul diesel trucks on U.S. roads today. Any of these vehicles could be converted to burn low-carbon renewable fuels with ClearFlame’s technology. The modifications aren’t difficult either — any of the 275,000 diesel mechanics in the U.S. can convert a diesel-burning engine to a ClearFlame engine. What’s more, the infrastructure for the production and distribution of ethanol already exists in the U.S.

“We invested in ethanol infrastructure a couple of decades ago for energy security,” Blumreiter said. “It makes sense to tap into this asset. We can strengthen American energy independence and contribute to homegrown economies.”

When considering the impact diesel engines have on the climate, Blumreiter stresses that it’s important to make immediate changes. “Because of our lack of progress on decarbonization, we are already past the point where we can realistically limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. We need to start implementing technologies that can have gigaton-scale carbon impact now to stop climate change from getting much worse.”

Johnson and Blumreiter also have a goal for ClearFlame to highlight the need for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the world of engineering and startups. They note that “Real DEI captures the truth that diversity fosters innovation and is a source of strength. We need to eliminate the kind of thinking that diminishes our successes by seeing a Black entrepreneur or a woman engineer as an exception.”

The Road Ahead

In 2022, the number of employees at ClearFlame, nearly doubled. They received an investment from John Deere, the massive agriculture equipment manufacturer, and converted a Deere diesel fuel feed engine to burn ethanol. ClearFlame’s four pilot trucks are accumulating road miles and attracting fleet pilot partners. They’ve also successfully converted a diesel power generator for mobile and distributed power applications.

The company has raised more than $20 million in initial investor capital and has received significant non-dilutive funding via Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Energy. Johnson and Blumreiter have consulted with Larta to envision and plan for what expansion to overseas markets — including Australia, India, and countries in South America — would entail.

For now, they remain focused on their core business, which is to drive adoption of ClearFlame trucks in the US to immediately reduce carbon emissions.

“Solving climate change means finding a variety of innovations that work for different uses and needs,” Johnson said. “The longer we look for solo silver bullets, the longer we perpetuate the status quo.”

Alumni News

January 17, 2023

How engine modification can help fleets replace diesel with cleaner-burning biofuels

ClearFlame Engine Technologies helps carriers meet their client’s ESG targets while saving 30 cents per mile

April 29, 2020

Company Receives $3 Million Financing on Ethanol-Diesel Technology

ClearFlame Engine Technologies closed on a $3 million initial round of financing from Clean Energy Ventures, along with other investors to help accelerate the development of a diesel engine that can run on ethanol, according to a news release from Clean Energy Ventures based in Boston.

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