A trial crop of a shrub used for basketmaking is being grown in Taupo to turn into fuel for cars and a form of sugar for the table.
Biotech company Genesis Research says the fuel, to be made from salix, a type of willow, could be available commercially in five years.
As well as yielding ethanols for vehicle engines, new patented technology will allow the company to extract xylose, a non-diabetic sweetener, and natural lignin, which can be used instead of petrochemicals in making plastics, resins and glues.
Genesis Research founder scientist James Watson hopes to choose the best variety of salix to start a commercial nursery within six months, after nearly two years of trial plantings on 16ha around Lake Taupo.
Through a yet-to-be-launched spin-off company named BioJoule, Genesis will set up a commercial refinery in the Taupo area to process the first 3000ha of salix.
BioJoule will also license and sell the crop - and the technology to process it - internationally.
Dr Watson said salix could yield 11 to 16 times more energy for every unit of energy used to process it.
This contrasts with corn, widely used in the United States, which has an energy yield of 1.6.
Salix also does not need to be replanted because it regrows from the stems after harvesting.
Partners in the project are the Lake Taupo Development Corporation and Ngati Tuwharetoa landowners.
While biofuels will help reduce the reliance on petroleum, Dr Watson sees the "real value" in xylose and lignin. Extracting lignin in its natural forms makes it usable in materials such as plastics, brake linings and glues.
At the NZBio conference in Auckland yesterday, visiting speaker Stephen Meller, head of the Global Bioscience Organisation at Procter and Gamble, said New Zealand is in a good position to capitalise on this new field.
"There's this long value chain from farming it, to processing it, to turning it into whatever useful end product.
"New Zealand has the opportunity to play a role in every single facet of that. Unlike some other countries, New Zealand is an agri-based economy. People here know how to farm."
Mr Meller said the key was in selecting the crop.
"They're not the traditional sorts of crops that people are used to growing. It's not soy beans, it's not corn, it's not sugar cane. It's something completely different that they've never thought of as being usable foodstuffs."
As in the United States, the New Zealand Government had to provide economic incentives such as tax reductions and subsidies for farmland used for growing energy crops, he said.
The US puts $300 million to $400 million a year into research and commercialisation.
Elizabeth Yeaman, senior adviser of renewable energy at the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority, said there was good potential for biofuels in New Zealand, not only from crops such as salix but also from waste such as sawdust.
The key was to develop a process for the fuel to be produced cheaply.
* A willow.
* Known as cane willow in the northeastern parts of America, where it was historically planted for the basket-making industry.
* A woody shrub that grows in a wide range of temperate environments and needs little fertiliser.