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Technology (general)

(CNN) -- New research published by American scientists may have brought the prospect of filling up your tank with green gas a little bit closer.

A team based at the University of Wisconsin, whose work is reported in the latest edition of the journal Science, has devised an efficient catalytic reactor that produces a diesel-like fuel from organic matter.

If the process can be repeated on an industrial scale, it could provide a clean-burning liquid alternative for millions of motorists.

Existing biofuels such as ethanol are based on plant matter. But the costly distillation process is so energy-intensive that just 1.1 units of energy are produced for every unit used.

George Huber, one of the authors of the Science paper, said that the new catalytic process doubled that to 2.2 units.

"It's a very efficient process," said Huber. " If you look at a carbohydrate source such as corn, our new process has the potential to creates twice the energy as is created in using corn to make ethanol."

The four-stage catalytic process transforms sugars derived from biomass into alkanes that have almost the exact chemical structure as traditionally produced biofuel.

The process is also capable of transforming virtually all plant matter into liquid fuel, whereas typical ethanol refining uses only the fatty acids that make up around 10 percent of the mass of dried plants.

As well as providing a greener alternative to fossil fuels, biodiesel could also utilize more than 1.3 billion tons of waste produced by the American agricultural industry each year and provide a new source of income for farmers.

"The current delivered cost of biomass is comparable or even cheaper than petroleum-based feedstock on an energy basis," said Huber. "This is one step in figuring out how to efficiently use our biomass resources."

But Charles Wyman, an engineering professor at Dartmouth College, told the MIT Technology Review that biomass fuels would only replace gasoline when manufacturers were able to sell it at cheaper prices.

"In the end it's the economic decision at the gas station where these technologies win or lose, not in the laboratory," he said.

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