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Fellows Paving a New Road for Diesel-Fueled Vehicles

ClearFlame co-founders Dr. BJ Johnson and Dr. Julie Blumreiter stand next to the retrofitted company work truck at Chain Reaction Innovations Demo Day in 2018.

“How can we make engines more efficient?”

That question stood at the center of Julie Blumreiter and BJ Johnson’s thesis work at Stanford University. They were both working toward doctorate degrees in mechanical engineering at Stanford, where Julie’s research focused on energy systems and transportation engines, and BJ’s research focused on the combustion of low-soot alternative fuels. Realizing the intersection of their work, they teamed up to develop technology that would eventually lead to the ClearFlame “Clear Combustion” process and the establishment of their organization, ClearFlame Engines.

Climate Action Meets Commercial Need

What started primarily as an academic pursuit for Julie and BJ led to an opportunity for real-world commercial value. In 2006, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began to roll out regulations to reduce pollution from diesel fuel, which produces harmful ground-level ozone and particulate matter when burned. The EPA also established stricter emissions standards for diesel engine highway vehicles in 2010. However, companies were running into problems meeting these emissions standards.

In September 2015, the EPA announced that Volkswagen sold 482,000 diesel engine vehicles in the United States that were programmed to pass the government’s emissions tests, but under normal driving conditions were emitting air pollutants significantly above legal limits. The needs for air quality, vehicle functionality, and sustainable revenue called for an alternative solution that met environmental standards, customer demand, and manufacturer requirements.

While electric vehicles were a viable environmental option for passenger car models and in areas with the required infrastructure and charging stations, vehicles used for long distance travel (e.g., freight trucks) or off-road equipment (e.g., for construction, mining, and agriculture) best functioned with biofuels. Julie and BJ saw an opportunity to meet the immediate need of decarbonizing traditional combustion applications by developing an alternative solution for vehicles that still needed to rely on diesel engines. That’s where ClearFlame came into the picture.

ClearFlame’s renewable redesign of the combustion engine allows it to play a vital role in areas where electric vehicles are challenged. ClearFlame modifies diesel engines to use clean-burning, locally sourced biofuels. Its solution drastically reduces emissions without sacrificing the performance needed in both developed and developing nations. This technology is opening additional pathways to lower the carbon footprint of the transportation sector. Leading researchers and scientific organizations, including the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy, and Argonne National Laboratory, have supported this technology for commercial development.

Finding Community and Leveraging Resources

Julie and BJ, who were awarded an Echoing Green Fellowship in 2019, have found value in personal, technical, and financial connections within the Echoing Green community. Having a cohort working across issue areas, who are combining social mission with practical implementations, has been helpful in sharing stories, ideas, successes, and challenges.

“Being part of the community and knowing others’ stories and struggles has helped me,” Julie said. “It’s expanded the way we think about what we’re doing.”

Along with community-building, Julie and BJ have leveraged and shared technical resources, challenges, and successes alongside the Fellow community. ClearFlame Engines recently closed on a $3 million initial round of financing from Clean Energy Ventures, the first priced-equity round for the company.

Knowing that Fellows require guidance and resources to secure all kinds of funding—including investments, loans, and grants—Echoing Green created a fundraising curriculum focused on loan-readiness with the support of Moody’s. Thanks to Moody’s financial experts, the loan curriculum is bridging the communication gap between funders and social entrepreneurs. Convertible notes, a type of short-term debt that converts into equity, were an extremely important part of ClearFlame early fundraising efforts.

For Echoing Green Fellows like Julie and BJ, joining Echoing Green’s community meant gaining access to networks and resources to help move ClearFlame’s mission forward. With Echoing Green’s ecosystem of Fellows, Alumni, advisors, partners, and supporters, we are cultivating an array of viewpoints and fresh perspectives that spark breakthrough ideas to solve the world’s most pressing problems.

“It’s helpful not feeling alone in the fight,” Julie said. “Having the community know that what you’re doing is challenging and offer feedback and guidance is critical.”

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