Illinois startup says its diesel engine burns cleaner fuels without compromising performance

Illinois-based ClearFlame Engine Technologies is branching out into its own space and moving toward product demonstrations after completing its term in a cohort at Argonne National Laboratory’s Chain Reaction Innovations entrepreneur program.

Founded in 2016, ClearFlame is modifying the standard diesel engine design to use lower carbon fuels such as ethanol or natural gas. The business is moving into its own R&D space to further develop the technology and get it into an original equipment manufacturer’s product line.

THE PROBLEM: Diesel combustion engines burn petroleum-based fuel and are a significant source of pollution. “A major challenge facing the diesel industry today is that [environmental] restrictions are constantly becoming more stringent,” said co-Founder and CEO BJ Johnson. Diesel engines designed to run on cleaner fuels run less efficiently and compromise torque, or power. They also tend to cost more upfront, if not over the life of the engine’s operation.

THE IMPACT: ClearFlame’s high-temperature combustion engine design would integrate into traditional diesel vehicles and offer the same torque, fuel efficiency, and durability but would lower carbon dioxide emissions by 40% and nitrous oxide emissions by 10 times.

“This is important because cleaner-burning fuels traditionally are thought to be incompatible with the diesel engine design,” Johnson said. “As a concept we’re relatively fuel agnostic. We work on any low-carbon fuel.”

Using a ClearFlame engine would reduce the cost by 75% for after-treatment systems that are commonly installed on diesel vehicles to scrub pollutants from the exhaust.

KEY CHALLENGE: ClearFlame’s biggest challenge to commercializing the engine is educating people about the technology, Johnson said. People need to understand that this engine is different from existing natural gas diesel engines because it can be both powerful and clean. “Innovative technology doesn’t mean we have to give up what we know or understand,” Johnson said.

WHAT’S NEXT: ClearFlame is partnering with Cummins on an engine pilot project it hopes to perfect in the next six months. It is seeking a variety of partners to enter a wide range of sectors that use diesel engines, including power generators, farm tractors, and heavy-duty trucks. “Despite believing very strongly in our technology, we don’t believe it’s going to be the only technology that’s going to be part of decarbonizing the future,” Johnson said. For example, battery-electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cells are other options that will be part of the playbook. “To solve the problem, we have to stop pretending we’ll only find one solution… It takes a village and a lot of solutions,” he said.

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