Everybody Wants vehicles that burn cleaner and are more fuel-efficient. Farmers, however, want fuel-efficient engines to power their workhorse pickup trucks and implements.

The typical new half-ton pickups built by Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge, GMC, Nissan, Toyota and Honda are as fuel-efficient as they can be right now. But the industry is on the verge of increasing its fuel efficiency because new government regulations will require it. The new energy bill calls for 35-mpg standards for all cars and light trucks, but not until 2020.

Drop in sales

That's long term. In the short-term, some farmers have chosen to weather the combination of rising fuel prices and the certainty that big pickups have limited fuel economy by putting off their new-truck buying. In 2007, sales of “needed” large pickups were expected to be solid, but sales of pickups dropped off suddenly at the end of the year.

Instead of a closing rally, the drop meant that Ford's F-150, which has led all vehicles in sales in the U.S. for 31 straight years, was off by 13.2% for the just-ended year. The Chevrolet Silverado, with rave reviews as Truck of the Year for 2007, fell off enough to end 2.8% down from the old version's 2006 sales. The Dodge Ram was off 2%, and the just-introduced Toyota Tundra, a newcomer to the full-size half-ton battleground, fell short of first-year projections.

Neither the Ram nor the Tundra numbers were considered significant. The Ram's slight drop came at the end of its model run. The Tundra got off to a slow start for various early production circumstances, and its sales actually rose at the end of the year to still make 2007 qualify as a successful debut. On the other hand, the Nissan Titan was off by 9.2%, while the slightly undersized Honda Ridgeline dropped 15% from the previous year.

The F-150's drop was big, although the pickup has been replaced by an entirely redesigned model, introduced in January at the Detroit Auto Show. Similarly, Dodge will counter with its new Ram, first shown at the Chicago Auto Show in early February.

As for engines, the newest turbocharged diesels in the heavier-duty trucks have made significant strides, and Ford, Dodge, Chevy, GMC, Toyota and Nissan are all readying new and lighter turbocharged diesel engines for their half-tons within a year.

Biofuels

Diesel power is much more acceptable these days, because low-sulfur diesel fuel, reduced from 500 parts per million sulfur to 15 ppm a year ago, burns cleaner and without the sooty, noisy effects of previous diesel power-plants. As good as low-sulfur fuel is, it can be displaced by biodiesel, which has been made predominately out of soybeans, but also could be extracted from prairie grasses, palm or other vegetable oils, algae, animal fats, or even the grease recovered from restaurant cookers.

Biodiesel is made by a technique called transesterification, by which glycerin is separated from the fat in vegetable oil, leaving biodiesel on one side and glycerin, which can be made into soap, on the other.

When burned, biodiesel is free of sulfur and aromatics and emits 60% less carbon dioxide. It is less toxic than table salt and biodegrades as easily as sugar.

“Our newest diesels are certified to run on a B5 biodiesel blend, which is 5% biodiesel, 95% regular diesel fuel,” says Kristen Kinley, sustainable communications manager at Ford. “But we haven't gone beyond that yet until the fuel industry can assure us of the consistency of higher percentages.”

Biodiesel technology already offers alternatives of various concentration, such as B20, B60 and B100. Engine manufacturers have readily sanctioned B5 but haven't yet embraced B20 (20% biodiesel) because it has less fibrosity, which can be a problem for the engine seals. Some manufacturers are working on kits that can allow the use of B20, however.

Fuel prices keep rising, but the price of E85, with 85% ethanol, went down in late 2007. The rising cost of corn eliminated most of the profitability of making it into ethanol, causing some new ethanol plants to be placed on hold. The situation may continue, because it is estimated that it will take 20 million more acres of corn to make 8 billion more gallons of ethanol.

Finding more efficient products for ethanol production involves the key word “cellulosic.” Crops such as prairie grasses are more cellulosic than corn, meaning their sugar molecules are more tightly linked and bunched together, making it is easier to dissolve the cellulose and ferment the rest in the ethanol-making process.

Every year, and maybe every month, seems to bring advancements in ethanol and biodiesel technology and new ideas to improve hybrid powertrains, fuel cells and plug-in electric motors. These new fuel-saving technologies may not be quite ready for prime time, but they can't come soon enough for farmers — or truck manufacturers.