BJ Johnson is CEO of ClearFlame Engine Technologies, based in Chicago. He co-founded the company in 2016 with Julie Blumreiter, Chief Technology Officer of ClearFlame. What started off as “an academic pursuit” landed as a business opportunity on the lap of the two engineering PhDs, who were looking to provide better solutions for the energy and transportation sectors.
“ClearFlame’s goal is to fill part of [the need for sustainability] by making cleaner and more powerful engines for heavy-duty applications,” Johnson wrote on LinkedIn. Since 2016, ClearFlame has secured over $3 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and Stanford University, his alma mater.
Currently, ClearFlame is looking for partners to assist in the development and deployment of the technology, along with additional investors who share their vision about the market potential of low-cost, low-emissions engines.
Below are excerpts from the ClearFlame interview with CCGMedia.
Our mission at ClearFlame is to develop a clean technology solution for the traditional heavy-duty engines operating on diesel fuel. It’s been demonized a lot recently, but the truth is our quality of life depends on those engines. The food that you eat is planted by (farm) tractors that are running diesel fuel engines. When you’re working from home and taking deliveries from Amazon, that’s being shipped around the country by diesel freight trucks.
But for all those benefits, these engines have serious environmental challenges. They produce a lot of CO2 and contribute to climate change. They harm air quality, especially in dense urban areas with things like smog and soot. ClearFlame’s mission was to find a way to decouple all the economic value and performance benefits of those engines from the environmental concerns that come along with diesel fuel.
So, we created a technology that allows the engine to operate in much the same way, but using a much, much cleaner-burning fuel so the world no longer has to choose between getting basic access to goods and electricity that these engines provide, and having clean air and a healthy planet.
It’s not our plan to be an actual producer of engines ourselves.
If you’re a trucker, you’ll still go to Peterbilt, but you can ask for one of their trucks with a ClearFlame-enabled engine in it…. You can also take your existing truck and go back into a maintenance shop and say, “hey, let me get a retrofit”. That’s an important part of our ClearFlame technology strategy. For example, California, where I went to school, is a state that’s progressive about their sustainability goals. But they still have old diesel engines on the road, especially around the ports in Oakland and Long Beach. These are urban areas with poor air quality.
If we’re going to solve this problem, we can’t just sell cleaner new trucks. We also have to get the older, dirty trucks off the road, or failing that, upgrade them to something cleaner, which is what ClearFlame can do.
New trucks and retrofits are both parts of our business model and they both work with our existing manufacturer partner channels.
Our earliest demonstrations have been on a common diesel engine platform that (manufacturers) gave to us. It is a large, entrenched industry with a lot of heavy-hitter incumbents. But these companies also know the world is demanding cleaner alternatives. There’s a reason that Tesla has become so popular, proving that petroleum fuel is not the only way to do it. I think manufacturers are excited about a startup company like ClearFlame that can take what they’re already good at – which is making these diesel engines – and make their existing expertise something that is more compatible with the sustainable future that we need, and the world is demanding. I think they’re aware we can modernize their product lines and we’re excited about that.
A lot of the early adopters are not the individual owner-operators. That will work eventually. But the early adopters will be the bigger fleets of the world that are under a lot of pressure to meet these aggressive carbon mitigation goals. People are promising ‘we are going to cut our carbon footprint by eighty percent by 2050.’ You can’t do that, if you don’t cut back on your reliance on petroleum diesel fuels. We’ve got people over that hurdle but it’s important we offer people those environmental and air quality benefits without asking them to spend more money.
We are doing this with a technology that everyone already knows how to use and maintain. You can find a maintenance person anywhere in the world that knows how to work on a diesel engine. So, we keep all those benefits and use low-cost fuel. This is not run on some magical fairy-dust. This is your basic ethanol fuel that you can find across the country—at railyards and in gas stations. And it’s a fuel that’s already cheap. So, you can adopt this technology and still get all your work done and meet all the sustainability benefits. The third leg of the stool is being able to do this while saving money at the same time. If we’re going to make this change as fast as we need to make it, we need to make sure people don’t have to choose between their livelihoods, economics, and the environment. At ClearFlame, we can offer it all.
As a growing company, we’ll always be looking for more engineers and people to help with marketing and our business development. There will always be need for legal help, PR help and all the parts of a company that a young, growing startup needs, especially as we generate more interest than we can take on ourselves.
What will I encourage people to do?
Get out there and try it. Automotive and energy are hard spaces to break into, but not something to be afraid of. It’s very traditional but we can see it’s changing quickly. People are beginning to appreciate the importance that diversity of thought is bringing to this industry – who, for 50 years got away with doing everything the same way. They were successful and made money. Nothing wrong with that. But the world is changing, and these large companies are beginning to think outside the box. There is a real hunger out there for people to come in and bring new ideas to the sector. That gives a real opportunity to break down barriers from the past.
You could do what Julie and I did at ClearFlame, where we have our own idea and want to champion it and take it to market ourselves. What’s the worst that can happen? You fail and try something else or, you change the world.
Entrepreneurship is not for everyone. Maybe you’d rather get a job at Ford and say ‘we know how farm tractors and trucks driving on the I-70 in the Midwest impact our lives, but we also need to think about urban areas and the role that new technologies can play in improving quality of life.’ Companies need those perspectives too and if you want to make the change from the inside, there’s real interest in seeing that happen. You’ll never know until you try.
Johnson says he enjoys using a range of technical, business, and analytical skills in his work at ClearFlame. He is also a former member of the USA Swimming National Team. Listen to the rest of the interview here.