Late in 2020, we ran across a startup that caught our attention. ClearFlame Engine Technologies was working on technology that would allow a conventional diesel engine to burn ethanol while delivering the same horsepower and torque. Started by two Stanford University grads, the engine is not only getting more attention, but also moving toward a real-world test later this year.
The test will be done in collaboration with Alto Ingredients Inc., a producer of specialty alcohols and essential ingredients for that industry. The aim is to conduct pilot demonstrations of the ClearFlame tech in a Class VIII truck. The test will help prove what the startup has already seen.
Essentially, the founders of the company have come up with a way for a diesel engine to burn decarbonized fuel — most likely ethanol — just like diesel burns. They have been testing it in a 500-hp Cummins X15 diesel engine. By insulating certain engine parts, the company has found it can get the ethanol to ignite like diesel by increasing the heat in the combustion chamber.
Related: Startup rethinks diesel power
While farmers might want the ethanol-diesel engine tech for the farm, the first market is most likely over-the-road trucks. These same rigs helped prove the emissions equipment that eventually made its way to the farm, but this time out, things are different. The ClearFlame engine doesn’t require aftertreatment to meet current emission standards. And that has gotten the attention of many following the diesel market.
As for the test itself? ClearFlame will provide Alto with a Class VIII truck retrofitted with a 500-hp heavy-duty demonstration engine, which is designed to match diesel torque and efficiency using true diesel-style combustion. Alto will provide fuel and fleet support to enable the testing. The truck will roll later this year, and we’re hoping to catch up with it when it hits the road.
Why is this so important? ClearFlame anticipates that its engine running on ethanol can cut greenhouse gas vehicle emissions by more than 45%, and offer an estimated 15% to 30% reduction in total operating cost versus a conventional diesel.
Startups make big claims all the time, but given the real-world nature of the test. I’m looking forward to hearing more.
Gaining more attention
When I first wrote about ClearFlame last year, I had heard about it through some venture capital investment news. In recent conversations with some major commodity group folks, I’ve learned that this engine is gaining significant attention for agriculture, too.
More work is being done showing that ethanol has a solid environmental track record as a fuel that can help reduce greenhouse gases. In some situations, it can be seen as “carbon neutral,” helping reduce a user’s carbon footprint and raising the value of ethanol in the market.
Whether that gains traction remains to be seen, but having real-world demonstrations of products can help show new ways ethanol can be used, helping stabilize the demand picture for corn.
I realize high corn prices can impact this picture, and hefty demand for corn from major buyers like China have tipped the scales after several soft price years. On the other hand, we must always keep the “demand picture” in focus, and building new sources of demand can help level out markets in the future.
B.J. Johnson, ClearFlame CEO and co-founder, in the media release announcing the collaboration notes that this is an important milestone for the company “as we can now offer fleets a widely available fuel solution so they can begin to test our technology easily in real-word environments.”
In the same release, Mike Kandris, CEO, Alto Ingredients, adds that “Alto ingredients is partnering with ClearFlame on its engine project to support our customers’ carbon dioxide reduction efforts by displacing 100% of the diesel in the tank.”
Many have said ethanol may be suffering, but tech like this shows that reports of an early demise to ethanol use have been greatly exaggerated.