On Wednesday, Imperium Renewables, a Seattle-based biodiesel start-up, announced that it had received a total of $214 million in funding -- $113 million in private equity financing and $101 million courtesy of a senior secured credit facility.

The company intends to use the money to build three biodiesel plants around the world. By the end of 2008, it expects to be capable of producing 400 million gallons a year.

To understand the scale of this plan, it helps to know that only 300 million gallons of biodiesel were produced in the entire U.S. in 2006. At a minimum, this will make Imperium one of the larger producers of biodiesel in the country.

Archer Daniels Midland (NYSE:ADM) is working on a 50 million-gallon facility, and you might recall this past fall that VeraSun (NYSE:VSE) announced that it's planning on building a 30 million-gallon facility.

This is not to suggest that the field will belong to Imperium. The entire biodiesel field is going gangbusters. Standard Renewable Energy, a Houston-based start-up which is already operating a biodiesel plant through a joint venture with Chevron (NYSE:CVX), is reported to be negotiating a deal similar in size to Imperium's. And I'm sure that ADM, Cargill, and others are in the process of expanding as well.

In fact, biodiesel could very well be this year's ethanol. In 2004, only 25 million gallons of the fuel were produced. In 2005, the figure jumped to 75 million, and it swelled to 300 million gallons in 2006. According to one report I saw, analysts are predicting that it will double again in 2007.

This still pales in comparison to the total amount of regular diesel fuel consumed in the U.S. (62 billion gallons), but it is a good start, and the numbers should continue to grow at a healthy clip for the foreseeable future. This is especially true as the environmental benefits of biodiesel become better understood, and as General Motors (NYSE:GM), Honda (NYSE:HMC), and DaimlerChrysler (NYSE:DCX) all begin manufacturing automobiles capable of running on diesel in the next few years.

So who will the winners be in the emerging field of biodiesel? Honestly, I can't say. As Imperium's CEO Martin Tobias has said, there are "a lot of novices bumbling around, and they will be making a lot of mistakes."

From my perspective, the safest way to play the field right now is to look to soybeans. That's right, soybeans. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that for every additional 50 million gallons of biodiesel produced, soybean prices will increase 1%.

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Fool contributor Jack Uldrich does like edamame (the fancy Japanese name for soybeans), but he doesn't invest in soybeans, nor does he have a stake in any of the companies mentioned in this article. The Fool has a strict disclosure policy.