How ClearFlame is modifying diesel trucks to run on ethanol
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How ClearFlame is modifying diesel trucks to run on ethanol to boost efficiency, curb emissions

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The trucking industry is too complex to have a one size fits all solution when it comes to decarbonization. Electrification makes sense when a truck is revving on a port all-day or gas prices rise. But on the other hand, it’s hard to beat the diesel range and its reliability. Sustainability has become an increasing priority for these companies but at the end of the day, it still needs to make practical and economical sense. Electrification might only work for a small subset of companies’ fleets, but diesel is not a sustainable option for the future. For fleets that are serious about decarbonization, they must find the right mix of technology they can put to work in the short term to reduce emissions as much as possible. And that technology is right around the corner. 

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ClearFlame proprietary technology enables heavy-duty truck diesel engines to operate on 100% renewable plant-based ethanol. The company is offering this ability by modifying their existing trucks or by replacing their engines. Moving forward, the company is focusing on ways to integrate ethanol-based engines and their modifications into the market and pave the way for more sustainable options. 

“The big thing for ClearFlame right now is showing that we can get the truck in the hands of customers in addition to saving money and being low in emissions,” said BJ Johnson, co-founder and CEO of ClearFlame. “Being able to show that the drivers can’t tell the difference from diesel matters from the driver acceptance perspective and fleet user behavior perspective.”

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The company modifies the truck but keeps approximately 80% to 90% of the engine parts from the stock diesel. They then convert that diesel engine to ethanol by choosing the ClearFlame components such as stock pistons and valves with added thermal protection, an alcohol-compliant injector, and minor air handling changes that enable ethanol ignition..

ClearFlame demonstrated its ethanol-fueled engine technology by taking a Class 8 diesel truck running on a Cummins X15 500-HP, 15-liter heavy-duty engine, commonly used for long-haul truck and off-highway applications, and converting it to run on renewable E98 ethanol.

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Installation of ClearFlame technology takes two to three days. Even when including the time it takes to move a truck from a fleet to a ClearFlame partner facility, ClearFlame expects the entire process to take under two weeks. Long term, ClearFlame plans to offer “do it yourself” kits for fleets that have the technician capacity to perform their own installations. These time frames are susceptible to change depending on the engine model.

The trucks equipped with ClearFlame’s engine technology will reduce CO₂ emissions significantly while lowering air quality emissions—particulate matter (soot) and Nitrogen Oxides (smog). This is because using standard corn ethanol lowers life cycle carbon emissions by 45% to 50% compared to diesel engine emissions, in contrast to only a 5-10% reduction using natural gas, the company says. Switching to ethanol can also help companies hit EPA regulations easier.  Not only is it environmentally efficient but also economical, according to ClearFlame.

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“We’re a fundamentally fuel-agnostic technology and we chose to run on ethanol because it is lower cost than diesel,” Johnson said. “It’s about an 8 cents per mile savings using historical fuel costs, but almost $0.40 per mile today.”

Diesel makes up a substantial part of the market, which has invoked a challenge in the change to other forms of fuel. What sets ethanol apart though is there are 17 billion gallons of ethanol ready to be used and every fuel rack in the country that has diesel is going to have ethanol, the company says.

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“You’re looking to keep doing business the way you are today in a low-risk way that still matters to your wallet and the environment, ethanol checks those boxes and people are starting to wake up to the fact that I don’t have to be afraid of a shift with technology,” Johnson said.

The company is making sure the transition to ethanol is easy to allow more people to join the movement and make sure they do not have to go out of their way to make the change from diesel. One way they are doing this is by providing ethanol the same way one gets diesel.

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“If you’re a fleet that operates around a refueling depot, you’re already calling a Mercuria or someone like that to take a delivery of diesel,” Johnson said. “If you call them and say, I want ethanol, it comes from the same place in the same type of truck that goes in the same type of tank that you might already have.”

Another way is by having ClearFlame trucks have the same diesel gallon equivalent fuel efficiency as a traditional diesel engine.

Clearflame is undergoing EPA approval and new engines will be commercially available in late 2023.

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