Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee, USA, have used neutron scattering experiments and a supercomputer to demystify the forces at play in biofuel production. The team hope to unearth the secrets of what happens when the plant cell walls are pre-treated under high temperature and pressure to break apart the protective gel of lignin and hemicellulose that surrounds the cellulose fibers. Given that this is the most expensive and energy-intensive stage of biofuel production it is a target for improving efficiency and cutting costs. The team found that dehydration and a phase separation occur during pretreatment and that both processes will make biomass amenable to processing can also impede certain aspects of the production process. The team has shown that a way to balance these two factors against each other could be exploited to make pretreatment more effective.