New Diesel Engine Powered by Ethanol

ClearFlame Engines Can Cut Diesel Emissions Burning Straight Ethanol

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
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ClearFlame Engines co-founders B.J. Johnson and Julie Blumreiter have developed a diesel engine that can burn straight ethanol. (Photo courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory)

HOUSTON (DTN) -- When ClearFlame Engines CEO B.J. Johnson told ethanol industry representatives about the potential ethanol market for the company's all-ethanol diesel engine, those at the recent National Ethanol Conference in Houston could have kissed him.

While concerns continue about the future of the Renewable Fuel Standard and whether the EPA will provide a 15-billion-gallon market for ethanol in light of small-refinery exemptions, Johnson said even an optimistic 20% market penetration into the $231 billion heavy-duty diesel market would in itself create 15 billion gallons of demand for ethanol per year.

"Ethanol burns more efficient than diesel," Johnson said.

"Why has it not happened? Ethanol is considered a gasoline additive. The solution? Get ethanol to burn in a diesel application. We're able to get a diesel engine to burn ethanol. We take the diesel engine design and implement it into a high-temperature combustion system.

"We're not fundamentally changing the design. No one has to give up the diesel-engine design. This is running on straight ethanol."

The reason ethanol's application in diesel engines hasn't happened is because the performance and simplicity of the diesel engine is tied to its dirty emissions, Johnson said.

But cleaner alternatives like spark ignition lack the performance required in many heavy-duty applications. ClearFlame's engine, Johnson said, is the only option to provide both high performance and low emissions.

The engine, still in the demonstration phase of development, can run on 98% ethanol straight off the rack or even on E85 so long as the fuel is close to 85% ethanol.

ClearFlame is working with Cummins Inc. and Argonne National Laboratory to develop the technology. Johnson said diesel fleets would have the potential to achieve a 40% reduction in carbon emissions and a $45,000 cost savings.

All the while, the ClearFlame engine has 30% more torque than engines running on diesel.

"Demand for diesel fuel is not going anywhere for decades," Johnson said.

"Ethanol's economic benefits are clear compared to diesel. Complicated emissions from diesel require after-treatment systems just to be compliant."

The diesel sector spends about $3.3 billion in after-treatment each year. Using ethanol in a diesel engine could save the sector $2.5 billion in after-treatment costs, Johnson said.

Although gasoline demand is expected to decrease in the next 20 years, he said demand for diesel is expected to remain high. In addition, he said the price of ethanol is expected to remain low relative to diesel prices for decades to come.

Johnson said the technology could help the ethanol industry gain even greater access to markets in states like California, which plans aggressive measures to reduce smog-producing emissions by as much as 90% in years to come. In addition, the technology can dramatically reduce soot emissions.

The ClearFlame engine is the only diesel engine that would meet California regulations on reductions in nitrous oxide emissions, Johnson said, and ethanol would help the state accomplish that goal.

Johnson pointed the case of truck and engine manufacturer Navistar. The company had control of 77% of the diesel-engine market until 2009.

"Navistar failed to meet 2010 emissions regulations and as a result they saw their market share plummet by 96%," he said.

"This demonstrates the existential threat that emissions regulations pose to diesel engine manufacturers."

One of the biggest hurdles in gaining market access is educating the public about how ethanol can be used in ClearFlame's technology, he said.

The company has about two to three years of demonstrations to complete, starting in 2021. Johnson said ClearFlame plans to scale up the technology in 2026 or 2027 and hopes to sign a license agreement with an engine manufacturer.

Johnson and co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Julie Blumreiter are graduates of Stanford University, and started ClearFlame based on work from their dissertations. The Chicago-based company received $25,000 in seed money from Ag Startup Engine at Iowa State University Research Park in 2019.

Johnson and Blumreiter have been participating in Chain Reactions Innovations, an entrepreneur program with the U.S. Department of Energy at Argonne National Laboratory.

The company has received several small business research grants totaling nearly $2 million.

Todd Neeley can be reached at

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( SK/CZ)

Todd Neeley

Todd Neeley
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