Highway transportation is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, and there are many technologies being developed to literally find the road to “decarbonization” of its various segments. The solution that gets the most attention, government support, and high-profile investment is the shift towards electric-powered vehicles. While electrification is an important and logical goal, its implementation is complicated, and it has several practical limitations. Until the overall power grid has been shifted to a higher proportion of renewable sources, these vehicles are still responsible for significant per-mile greenhouse gas emissions. There are other significant modifications needed in terms of infrastructure development and supply chain modification, ranging from rare earth mineral mining, to battery manufacture and recycling, to charging station installations, to maintenance capability. These will take time and investment.
EVs are also not the best answer for all transportation needs. They are particularly unsuitable as a low carbon option for the several million long-haul trucks that keep our economy supplied. The batteries that would be needed to handle those kinds of loads and distances would be far too heavy to be practical. Fortunately, there is a different decarbonization option for these trucks that can begin to be more rapidly employed because it can expand using existing infrastructure and support systems.
The startup company ClearFlame Engine Technologies has recently reached important milestones in its efforts to reduce the carbon emission profile of the Class-8 heavy trucking sector. Its technology modifies existing diesel engines to allow them to burn a range of low-carbon fuels, including bio-ethanol, and can be used in a range of applications, including transportation, agriculture, and power generators. The first recent milestone demonstrates that there are existing players willing and able to do the engine retrofit using an insert that ClearFlame manufactures. They cooperated with the engine rebuilding company Reviva and the service provider Vander Haag’s Inc. to make these changes to existing trucks.
These conversions were successful in confirming that this category of service providers can perform the engine conversion step with their existing facilities and skill sets. Eric Krikke, the Chief Business Officer of Vander Haag’s Inc. said that the conversion process was “straightforward” and that the mechanics at their nine locations would be very familiar with the necessary steps for conversion and on-going service. Reviva will cover the engines with a two-year warranty, and Vander Haag’s broader parts distribution system would also easily accommodate the needs for these engines in the future.
The next milestone put converted trucks in the hands of a company that has a fleet of trucks suitable for this conversion. ClearFlame engaged with the family-owned seed company Beck’s to do on-road validation of the engine to see if its performance in a real-world role would fit the needs of its truck fleet. The truck they tested worked well and they were able to arrange for refueling with their partners Co-Alliance Cooperative Inc., CIE (Central Indiana Ethanol), and CountryMark.
Brad Fruth, the Director of Innovation for Beck’s, said that they have been interested in trying this technology since hearing about it two years ago. They like the idea of supporting the biofuels industry, which is good for the row crop farmers they serve and for the regional economy. The only issues they faced had to do with paperwork around taxes related to purchasing E98 for the first time, which was fairly easily resolved.
The next key step for ClearFlame is the approval that is required from the EPA to certify that the modified engines meet emissions standards and that the on-board diagnostics for the engine such as the “check engine” light will be accurately triggered if there are problems. Since ethanol does not have the NOx emissions issues of diesel, the approval is expected by the end of 2023. Similarly, California’s CARB emissions standards should not be a barrier.
There is obviously a cost associated with making the engine modification, but it is far smaller than the cost of a new vehicle. Diesel engines modified using the ClearFlame engines can use 98% ethanol and get comparable efficiency to a diesel engine – around 15-20% higher than a spark-ignited engine. The bio-based fuel will qualify for “RIN” credits within the EPA’s Renewable Fuel Standard and that will result in cost savings in the range of $1.13/gallon. In combination, this translated into a national average cost savings of six cents per mile in 2021 fuel prices, ranging from $0.11/mile in CA, OR, AK and WA $0.02 in NY, to no difference in ME and FL. However, current diesel pricing has increased this spread to $0.35/mile.
According to an independent study, a ClearFlame long-haul truck would generate 42% less greenhouse gas emissions per mile than a normal diesel rig. It would generate 23% less per mile than if it was using electric power with the current grid mix of fossil and renewable sources. On an annual basis the company estimates that a typical truck would realize more than $42,000 in fuel savings, 160,000 fewer pounds of CO2 emissions, and the use of 300 fewer barrels of fossil fuel, based on recent prices.
ClearFlame has a detailed calculator that potential customers will be able to use to quantify their operating cost pay-back trajectory. The model takes into account vehicle purchase or conversion cost, federal and state taxes, maintenance and insurance, the at-the-pump fuel cost, depreciation tax benefits, and the residual value of the investment. For a truck hauling heavy loads 120,000 miles per year the payback for modification will be about 12-15 months based on recent fuel prices.
While this technology has not commanded the attention that has been paid to vehicle electrification, it has some significant investment partners including Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Clean Energy Ventures, and the energy trader Mercuria. Agricultural equipment manufacturer John Deere is also an investor and is working on new OEM options for off-road sectors. Over the next several years it seems likely that the decarbonization of this important transportation segment can start to “hit the road.”