The setting was modest but the rhetoric was anything but.

Inside a drab third-floor chemistry lab at Augsburg College, a group of scientists on Friday unveiled a technology they claim could "revolutionize" energy production and free the United States from its dependence on foreign oil.

That's a tall order for a small liberal arts college in Minneapolis that, at least until now, was not particularly known for its energy acumen.

Nevertheless, Augsburg President Paul Pribbenow suggested the technology, which makes cleaner and cheaper biodiesel fuel, could be "one of modern day's greatest discoveries." ("Miracle," "history making" and "dream" were also liberally tossed about during the 30-minute news conference.)

Dubbed the "Mcgyan Process," the technology, inspired by the work of Augsburg undergraduate Brian Krohn, converts most feedstocks into biodiesel fuel without using much water or producing lots of waste.

Ever Cat Fuels, a start-up co-founded by Augsburg alumnus Clayton McNeff, is building a $5 million plant in Isanti that eventually will produce 3 million gallons of biodiesel fuel a year.

Normally, companies make biodiesel fuel by mixing soybean oil with a sodium hydroxide "catalyst" in a tank that's heated at a high temperature. But this "batch" process takes hours to complete and produces waste. The catalyst itself must be neutralized with either hydrochloric or sulfuric acid, two toxic chemicals.

The Mcgyan method employs a metal oxide catalyst that converts a mixture of alcohol and feedstock oils in a tubelike reactor to biodiesel fuel. This continuous or "flow" process makes it more efficient because it takes seconds to complete and produces little waste, McNeff said. Patents on the process are pending.

One of the feedstock oils can be algae oil, which can be produced in great quantities from wastewater. Xcel Energy Inc. has invested $4.5 million toward algae and other alternative energy work through the University of Minnesota's Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment.

The timing for Friday's announcement could not have been better. Oil prices reached record highs this week, twice breaking $105 a barrel. That's higher than the previous peak in April 1980, when oil topped $101, after adjusting for inflation.

Thomas Lee • 612-673-7744