Ethanol's Next Open Road

Having just landed $17 million in funding, ClearFlame is poised to make ethanol-powered diesel engines a reality—and putting trucks on the road to prove it.
By Tom Bryan | November 16, 2021

In early 2020, When BJ Johnson told attendees of the National Ethanol Conference about a  technology that could make diesel engines run on ethanol, he was asked how long it would take to get trucks and on the road. Johnson said it might take five years, but it’s happening now. Had Johnson been asked about fundraising that day, he might have made an equally lowball prediction, not knowing his company would secure $24 million over the next 20 months—even landing Series A funding from John Deere—despite launching the company amid the tumult of a pandemic.

“I hate to say lucky, but when you look at what we’ve accomplished in the middle of this pandemic, it’s pretty remarkable,” says Johnson, ClearFlame CEO and cofounder. “The speed of our development is directly related to how our national dialogue on carbon has been amplified over the past year. There’s a growing sense of climate urgency now and people want immediate solutions rather than technology that is 10 or 20 years away.” 

ClearFlame, first featured in Ethanol Producer Magazine in July of 2020, is an Illinois-based startup dedicated to the development of net-zero engine technology that enables low-carbon, renewable fuels—primarily ethanol—to be used in existing diesel engines, offering a low-emissions, low-cost alternative to diesel. According to Johnson, ClearFlame-enabled engines meet the performance and efficiency requirements for diesel engines while significantly reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and particulate matter, improving air quality and mitigating climate change.

In late October, the company secured $17 million in Series A financing, which will be used to accelerate the commercialization of its engine technology, targeting long-haul trucking applications first, then agriculture and power generation. The recent financing was led by Breakthrough Energy Ventures with participation from the commodities trading company Mercuria, John Deere and Clean Energy Ventures.

Previously, ClearFlame received $4 million from the Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas and Illinois corn growers associations, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy and others. The company also secured $3 million in seed financing in early 2020, which helped it establish an in-house R&D facility and accelerate prototyping.   

With its coffers full, the company is ready to deploy technology in real-world demonstrations. “When I first presented at the National Ethanol Conference in 2020, we were still completing our testing on a Caterpillar research engine at Argonne National Lab,” Johnson says. “Since then, we’ve moved over to a Cummins X15 platform and completed that demo. Getting trucks on the road is now our top priority and it’s happening faster than we initially thought. We’re actually outfitting our first trucks right now and they’re going on the road soon.”

Johnson says ClearFlame’s technology is based on high-temperature combustion. The technology works by changing the way heat is managed within an engine by using insulation and managing exhaust flow. “If you get something hot enough, it will burn,” he says, explaining that diesel engines prefer easy-to-burn fuel. “Ethanol is high-octane, which means it’s hard to burn. But if you can get a diesel engine to run hotter, even a high-octane fuel like ethanol will burn in the same engine cycle.”    

Exactly how ClearFlame achieves high-temperature combustion is technical and proprietary, but Johnson says it requires changes to only about 15% of the engine. “Once it’s done, the engine operates the same way it did before,” he says. “It even sounds like a diesel engine.”

While what’s under the hood remains largely the same, using ethanol in diesel engines would have profound economic and emissions benefits. Johnson says criteria pollutants (i.e., smog emissions including NOx) and CO2 are substantially reduced.

E98 or E85?
While ClearFlame’s technology is “fuel agnostic,” it has been optimized for ethanol. More specifically, the technology is being tested with E98, the denatured ethanol that is typically blended with gasoline. “For people who don’t know our story, the current narrative seems very ethanol centric, but we made this technology to be compatible with whatever fuel makes the most economic and environmental sense,” Johnson says. “Right now, that’s ethanol.”

The first diesel trucks being retrofitted to run on ClearFlame’s engine technology will run on E98, but the company is already working to make its technology compatible with E85. “With E85 blends varying widely, there is some engineering needed to make sure the engine knows what it’s getting. That functionality could be in place within a year or so,” Johnson says, explaining that the lowest-cost, most widely available fuel will ultimately win out.

While E98 is not currently available at retail, Johnson says it is available. “E98 is ubiquitous in terms of how ethanol is moved around the country for blending,” he says. “It would be ideal for co-ops, which could sell E98 directly and not have to worry about gasoline blending. There are some real advantages to E98, in terms of autonomy. And any fleet manager can purchase E98 from a fuel rack. It’s available.”

Johnson says that while E85 has the appeal of being available at the pump, E98 has an emissions and climate edge. “Long-term, if you’re trying reduce petroleum use and reduce carbon emissions, why not use the highest ethanol blend possible?”
Pivoting for Progress
While ClearFlame is now well funded, it’s still in startup form. It has established its headquarters in Geneva, Illinois, an hour west of Chicago, but its 16 employees are still spread out and working remotely. “We’ll likely continue to operate that way post-pandemic,” Johnson says, adding that the company’s engineering team is working together in person in Geneva.

Over the past year, much of Johnson’s time has been spent on fundraising while Julie Blumreiter, ClearFlame’s cofounder and chief technical officer, has remained focused on development work. “I’m still involved with engineering to some degree, but not on a day-to-day basis,” Johnson says. “Capital is the oxygen for any startup, but you also need to keep moving your technology froward while you’re fundraising. We’ve been able to divide and conquer those responsibilities quite well.”

Raising money while advancing tech requires agility, and ClearFlame has pivoted when necessary. The company initially intended to complete extensive engine demonstration work before starting its Series A fundraising, but putting the work on hold wasn’t ideal. So Johnson says ClearFlame used convertible notes and support from state corn groups to sustain momentum, achieving good results. “We could not have gotten trucks on the road by the end of the year had we not done it that way,” he says.
The Road Ahead  
With demonstration trucks putting on miles this winter, ClearFlame should be ready for fleet testing by late-2022. “We’ll move into alpha pilots and work out the early kinks in the field,” Johnson says. “Later in 2022, by Q4, we’ll start beta demonstrations with maybe 20 or 25 trucks—still test units, but with the goal of accumulating meaningful amounts of road miles. Two million road miles in the first year of beta testing could be possible.”

By 2023, Johnson says, ClearFlame will move towards a fully certified and tested product that can be retrofitted with exiting truck fleets. “Inside of five years, we’ll start expanding into other applications—gensets and tractors, in parallel, he says, explaining that the United States alone uses 40 to 45 billion gallons of on-road diesel fuel each year. “It’s a huge market. Including off-road, it's about 60 billion gallons annually.”

Johnson envisions ClearFlame’s technology having a potentially transformative impact on agriculture. He imagines farmers harvesting corn with combines powered by fuel made from the same grain. “It’s a virtuous cycle,” he says. “Not only are you allowing the farmer co-op to be independent, with the corn, DDGS and ethanol moving from the fields to the plants to the railyards, but the whole environment would be running on its own fuel.”

As ClearFlame meets its near-term goals, it will ratchet up its engagement with engine manufacturers. While the company rolls out its first technology offering as a retrofit, it will work toward the goal of creating future products that are available through OEMs. 

Already, Johnson says, OEM interest in ClearFlame’s technology is picking up. “I think they’re waking up to what we're doing,” he says. “Two years ago, everyone agreed that EV cars were coming but diesel trucks weren’t going away. I don’t think that’s a given anymore. The sector is changing fast, and people are starting to recognize that our technology would allow the whole diesel establishment to remain in place—engine production and maintenance, distribution and supply chain core competencies. If you can keep all that in place while switching to a more sustainable future by using ethanol, it’s an easy choice.”

Author: Tom Bryan
Contact: [email protected]