You Don't Know Beans

While the media has followed the success of the Toyota Prius gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle, it has been virtually silent on the success of the Jeep Liberty CRD diesel, which comes pre-filled with a mixture of conventional diesel oil and biodiesel.  While sales of the Liberty CRD have been more modest than the Prius (just 10,000 units versus the Prius's 100,000+) the Liberty's sales figure has been double DaimlerChrysler's projections.  And it indicates that, against odds, there could be a growing U.S. market for diesel-powered vehicles, especially in light of the potential benefits of biodiesel, which has environmental advantages and can help wean the U.S. off foreign oil.

Biodiesel is a cleaner burning, renewable alternative fuel that can be made from any fat or vegetable oil, such as soybean oil. The market surplus in soybean oil from one bushel of soybeans makes 1.4 gallons of biodiesel, offering up a lucrative new market for America's farmers without detracting from the nation's food supply.  When you add to that the anti-pollution and fuel efficiency of the Common Rail Diesel (CRD) engine technology, you have a potent one-two punch that can benefit the nation if -- and it's a big if -- consumers can be convinced to give the new clean diesel-biodiesel technology a try.

"At DaimlerChrysler, biodiesel is part of our vision for an America that is less dependent on petroleum, that protects and preserves the environment, and that values a strong and sustainable economy," said Deb Morrissett, vice president -- regulatory affairs for the Chrysler Group.

Morrissett noted that in addition to the 30 percent improvements in fuel economy with clean diesel technology, biodiesel has the potential to reduce our nation's reliance on petroleum, much of it from overseas sources. While new clean-diesel technology reduces so-called "greenhouse gas emissions" up to 20 percent, biodiesel can further improve the carbon dioxide balance. Biodiesel also cuts tailpipe emissions significantly. And it is homegrown, thanks to America's farmers.

"Alternative fuels, including soy biodiesel and ethanol, are included in the President's energy plan," Amy Sigg Davis, chairman of the Ohio Soybean Council.  "I can see nothing but a bright future for soy biodiesel, the nation's farmers, our economy and the environment."

In addition to B5, a blend of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent regular diesel fuel called B20 (how do they think of these names?) has recently been approved by Chrysler for use in its Dodge Ram pickup trucks for government, military and commercial fleet customers effective with the 2007 model year. DaimlerChrysler is the first U.S. automaker to specifically approve of B20.

The downside of the picture is that recent consumer research indicates that American consumers still have lingering doubts about diesels, many born in the diesel boom-bust debacle of the late 1970s and early 1980s.  But with green biodiesel leading the way, the diesel engine might be poised for renewed success.  You can learn more about biodiesel by going to their Web site.

Based in Cleveland, Luigi Fraschini covers the auto industry with a particular emphasis on environmental and safety issues.