Biofuel done cheaper (thanks to sulfuric acid).

Nature is predigesting our gasoline… or something like that. Researchers have found that you can get fuel out of some tough material by treating it with a chemical mixture that breaks it down:

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 ?-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.

“I think there is a great potential for this approach in biomass processing,” says Harvey Blanch, a bioenergy researcher at the Joint BioEnergy Institute in Emeryville, California, who was not involved in the work.

…Luterbacher says that his team’s enzyme-free process has plenty of potential for improvement. “The point is that we have a new technology that we have been developing for a year, and it’s comparable [in cost] to enzymes that have been in development for decades,” he says.