Ethanol is commonly used as a gasoline substitute, but an engineering startup sees the potential to use the corn-based fuel as a cleaner, renewable substitute for diesel fuel as well.
BJ Johnson, a mechanical engineer and CEO of ClearFlame Engines, said his company is optimizing a high-efficiency compression ignition engine that runs on ethanol to improve performance and lower soot particle emissions.
Johnson’s quest started during his graduate studies at Stanford University. Ethanol fell on the short list of options for a cleaner burning fuel for high-efficiency compression ignition engines as it is a relatively cheap fuel and easy to transport, he said.
ClearFlame Engines is currently participating in the Chain Reactions Innovations program at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago which provides funding and lab space to support entrepreneurs as they develop new technologies from idea to prototype.
Johnson said diesel engines are ideal for high efficiency applications due to their high compression ratios, but diesel fuel can produce a lot of soot and NOx.
While burning ethanol also releases CO2, Johnson said emissions are reduced compared to diesel, in addition to soot and NOx reductions. Further, ethanol should have lower CO2 emissions as cellulosic forms of ethanol are adopted.
ClearFlame Engines is aiming for a pilot deployment of their ethanol-powered compression ignition engine in 18 to 24 months.
A stationary ethanol-powered electrical generator is a likely first step for the technology, but Johnson sees how it could fill a need for a cleaner fuel in both long haul trucking and farm machinery.
Johnson said he has contacted farmers in Iowa to gauge their interest in using ethanol as a diesel substitute.
He said the farmers he spoke with saw potential benefits from the technology both as a way to protect against swings in diesel prices and as an alternative to diesel aftertreatment systems, mandated by the EPA to lower particulate and NOx emissions on late model diesel equipment.
Iowa Renewable Fuels Executive Director Monte Shaw said it’s hard to gauge how this type of technology could impact the ethanol industry as adoption of new engine technology is a slow process.
“We love people being creative and finding new uses for ethanol,” Shaw said.
Shaw said ethanol diesel blends were tested in the early 2000s, but he was not aware of any of those technologies being used today.
Recently, significant research has been focused on developing high efficiency gasoline-type engines optimized for ethanol use, including work at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Shaw said.
Shaw said new standards for higher fuel economy written by the Obama Administration favored electrical vehicles over low-carbon fuels like ethanol, even if the low-carbon fuels met performance standards.
“We’re hopeful that when Trump revisits these CAFE standards, he will revisit that. We’d like to see a real fair and open system that lets technologies compete out there,” Shaw said.
Public research funding for renewable fuels were among suggested cuts in the Trump Administration’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2018. The proposed budget would reduce funding for the Department of Energy’s applied energy research programs, including the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, by $2.154 billion from a 2017 budget of $3.76 billion.
The budget proposal stated “the private sector is best positioned and motivated to evaluate the commercial potential of emerging energy technologies.”
Given production cycles of near five years and the current international nature of markets for most engine makers, it would take time for the industry to change directions, Johnson said, but “there is a lot of inertia behind the movement to cleaner engines.”