The possibility of producing biofuels that compete on price with petroleum could be on the horizon thanks to a breakthrough by scientists in America.

A collaboration, led by a team from California’s Sandia National Laboratories, has essentially found a pathway for making products from lignin, the plant waste leftover from biofuel production. By converting it into a compound that can be used for things like fabrics, nylon and renewable plastics, it can have a value and bring down the costs of biofuel.

Sandia scientist Amanda Kohler spearheaded the project, which included researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the Joint BioEnergy Institute. The key findings centred around the enzyme, LigM, which the group discovered was suited to breaking down the lignin into smaller, more useable fragments; something that was previously difficult to do.

“We have a much-needed understanding of a key step in this process and are developing enzymes to fit our end goals of lowering the cost of biofuels by making products from lignin,” Amanda Kohler said.

The report on LigM is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.