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Special Report: Plant Energy

Revolutionary crops that could replace fossil fuels, growing right here in the Central Valley.
There is a new technology that can help solve the world's increasing need for energy... and it's right here in Central California.

CBS47's Justin Sacher shows us how researchers at Fresno State are teaming up with local farmers and the private sector to harness new sources of energy.

What if you could fill your gas tank with fuel that comes from plants instead of overseas? And what if these plants grew in hot, dry places, like the Central Valley?

A world energy revolution is taking place right here... bringing cleaner air along with greener fields and wallets.

You've probably driven by the fields at Cedar and Bullard, near Fresno State, but had no idea that  what is growing there, is about to change the Valley and the world. This is where Fresno State is growing sugar beets -- a plant that can be turned into fuel for your car. Thousands of acres of beets are going into local farm fields right now, including the research plots at Fresno State.

David Zoldoske, Ph.D from Fresno State said, "We call them energy beets, actually, instead of sugar beets. They're designed specifically for conversion to ethanol." 

The idea isn't new. In many parts of the country, a small amount of corn ethanol is already blended into gas sold at the pump.

Now if your car or truck has this logo that says 'Flex Fuel' your car can take the cheaper E-85 ethanol blend. Marquette Dileon uses E-85 and said, "When I got this car the guy that sold to me didn't know about the little logo on the back. Flex Fuel is way cheaper. I love it."

Fuel from plants is sustainable and better for the air, but it's controversial, too. Opponents argue corn should be used for food. And corn ethanol production has yet to provide significant savings over fossil fuel. Here is where Central California has corn beat. Sugar beets can produce perhaps three times as much alcohol per acre of corn. Sugar beets take less water than corn to grow - about a third of the water needed for almonds.  Perhaps beets can even bring life back to fallow fields on the west side.

Local farmers know we have the perfect place to grow sugar beets. In fact, they used to be a huge crop in the Valley, until the cost of shipping hundreds of miles for processing was too high. Now they're the reason for a new partnership between Fresno State and Mendota Bioenergy, which is building a processing plant in Five Points. It could be the first of many. "We have been involved with the growers co-op... involved with trying to advance the technologies," said Zoldoske.

But perhaps even more impressive than local sugar beet ethanol is energy from a completely different kind of plant, the MegaFlora Tree. The hybrid Paulownia is a cross between two different plants. Fresno scientist and business owner Dr. Ray Allen tells CBS47 he has a way to graft them at the root. "I would call it more a discovery than I would an invention," said Allen.

Six thousand of the MegaFlora Trees have been planted on dozens of acres of test plots just minutes from Fresno. Dr Allen says the fast-growing trees require little water and help clean soil and air. Water moves through a central channel and drains quickly after harvest. This eliminates preparation costs when turning it into fuel.

Experiments are ongoing but Dr Allen claims his early results show an acre of MegaFlora Trees could create three times the energy of sugar beets. That's eight times the energy of an acre of corn. "As one of my colleagues said, why would you plant anything else?" said Allen

Although it will take time before these results are verified independently and research established to the level of beets and corn, the potential of the MegaFlora plant is exciting.

And the future of the world depends on developing supplies of food and energy - all while clean water becomes even more scarce. "Of course our costs are higher the value of our land and water is higher so we have to look for alternative crops," said Zoldoske.

Chances are the next world-changing solution might just come from our backyard.

Click the related link to watch a special Extended Play in-depth look at the MegaFlora Tree.

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