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A mild chemical treatment that completely dissolves wood, dried grasses and other indigestible plant matter could greatly improve the efficiency of converting waste biomass to fuel.

Ethanol and other biofuels, including certain petrol and diesel substitutes, can be produced from simple sugars, usually by fermentation. Most of the sugars come from foodstuffs, including sugar cane and maize (corn). But most of the biomass produced in agriculture and forestry lies unused in more-complex chains of sugars, for example lignin and cellulose.

These tough, recalcitrant materials, which provide structural support for wood, grasses and the non-edible parts of crops, are hard to break down. Producers of cellulosic ethanol currently spend 15–20% of their fuel costs on acids and enzymes to loosen and chew up the fibres.

By adding a dash of dilute sulphuric acid to a colourless, herbal-smelling liquid called γ-valerolactone (GVL), chemists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison have now invented a process that they say easily extracts sugars from lignin and cellulose fibres.

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