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Startup that claims to be the 'Tesla of heavy duty' trucks could bridge the gap between gas-powered and electric vehicles

"Too many people want to say everything will be battery electric, let's forget about anything else."

“Too many people want to say everything will be battery electric, let’s forget about anything else."

Photo Credit: iStock

Startup tech company ClearFlame has developed a way to remake the diesel engines of existing semi trucks and other large vehicles so they can run on less costly, less polluting ethanol instead, GreenBiz reports.

ClearFlame was started by BJ Johnson and Julie Blumreiter, who came up with the project while studying at Stanford University.

In 2017, they were chosen to be part of Argonne National Laboratory's Chain Reaction Innovations fellowship program. They moved to Chicago and started the work of bringing ClearFlame to life.

Their mission was to find a way to make big, powerful trucks and heavy equipment less polluting. Currently, most of these vehicles use diesel, a fuel that produces a huge amount of air pollution and is one of the main reasons the Earth is getting so dangerously hot.

Electric vehicles don't produce air pollution, but as Johnson and Blumreiter told GreenBiz, there are several problems that are slowing down the shift from diesel to EVs.

While companies like Tesla and Mercedes-Benz have recently produced EVs with the power necessary for heavy trucking, charging stations are still hard to find, especially outside the U.S. and Europe.

Johnson claims ClearFlame is the "Tesla of heavy duty," according to GreenBiz. "Tesla was close to a trillion dollars [in valuation] before OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] took electric vehicles seriously," Johnson explained. "We're on fundamentally the same path. You have to go to the market, and prove people want this."

"Too many people want to say everything will be battery electric, let's forget about anything else," John Wall told GreenBiz. Wall is the former chief technology officer for global engine maker Cummins and an advisor on Johnson and Blumreiter's project. "You don't want the perfect to be the enemy of the good. If you can get 40 percent emissions reductions now, let's do that and work on the rest."

According to GreenBiz, ClearFlame's ethanol engines offer a smooth transition between diesel and electric. Ethanol, also called grain alcohol, can be made out of many different staple crops, including corn and sugarcane. 

It's affordable, can be produced in countries that struggle to get both diesel fuel and electric vehicles, and while burning it for fuel does produce heat-trapping air pollution, the entire process from growing the crops to burning the fuel produces 40% to 50% less than using diesel, per GreenBiz. Plus, ethanol-based fuel can be dispensed from existing gas stations, unlike many other futuristic fuels.

ClearFlame already has several projects in the works with companies that will use their technology to convert diesel trucks to run on ethanol. "This is not just a California solution, this is a global solution to a global problem," Blumreiter told GreenBiz

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