Lighter fluid may be useful for getting barbecue briquettes or campfires lit, but it's not the most eco-friendly stuff in the world. It's often made from crude oil, and gives off toxic fumes when it burns. A team of scientists from Hong Kong and Hungary are developing what could be a greener solution, however – cleaner-burning lighter fluid derived from discarded paper.

Led by István T. Horváth from City University of Hong Kong, the researchers start with paper waste and newsprint. Using sulfuric acid as a catalyst, they convert it into levulinic acid and formic acid, which are in turn converted into a compound known as gamma-valerolactone (GVL).

Pure GVL creates no toxic fumes – when it was used as fuel for glass lamps burning in a small room for several hours, it created no noticeable smoke or odors. By contrast, the emissions from kerosene-fueled lamps – which are commonly used in the developing world – are a major source of health problems.

And yes, GVL is also an effective fire accelerant when added to charcoal. Although it works rather slowly in its pure form, it can ignite charcoal within just a few seconds if combined with ethanol. In lab tests, it was found that an ignited mix of 90 percent GVL and 10 percent ethanol gave off 15 percent less volatile organic compounds than traditional lighter fluid.

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering.