A new project that may be about to change public perception of sugar beet, a crop that once dominated farms but has recently been abandoned by farmers, has been launched in California. However, this time the crop is not used to extract sugar but to produce ethanol.

The new project is funded by a $5 million state grant, supporting a dozen local farmers who are going to join forces to build a new Fresno County demonstration plant together with a team of university experts. The demonstration plant will convert the beets into ethanol that will in turn be used to produce biofuel.

If the project proves a success, the group of farmers from Five Points, Fresno County, will construct the first commercial-scale bio-refinery in the United States, in nearby Mendota, to turn beets into biofuel. Similar plants are already successfully operating across the Atlantic in several European countries, the Californian Daily Democrat reported.

At present, as much as 95 percent of the biofuel in the United States is produced from corn but this may soon change because of the Renewable Fuel Standard, which caps the amount of ethanol produced from corn at 15 billion gallons.

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If the sugar beet project develops as planned, this would give another option to the state to achieve its greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets. According to California state officials, the planned beet processing facility is evidence that the state is willing to invest extensively in biofuel production and in innovative ways to meet the rising biofuel demand over the next 10 years.

Robert Weisenmiller, chair of the California Energy Commission, said that the state is looking into various methods to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to replace traditional transportation fuel with fuel containing a lower concentration of carbon. The beet plant has the potential to achieve this, he added.

One of the advantages of beets over corn is the fact that they can yield twice as much ethanol per acre, because beets have a higher sugar content per ton than corn, the farmers explained. They hope that developing the project would result in jobs and more investments for the area. Such a boost would be extremely beneficial because farmers in some parts of California, including Five Points, have had to cope with a number of challenges, such as water pumping restrictions and overly salty soil, the Daily Democrat said.

Farmer John Diener, who owns the ranch where the demonstration plant will be built, commented that the project is not just about developing alternative biofuels but about rural development as a whole and about creating jobs and bringing a better tax base to this area.

Production of ethanol in the United States has grown rapidly over the past few years, mostly driven by federal mandate on biofuels. Currently, there are plants in 28 states manufacturing a total of more than 13 billion gallons of ethanol each year, said Geoff Cooper, vice president for research and analysis for the Renewable Fuels Association.