Lignocellulosic biomass is a plentiful and renewable resource for fuels and chemicals. Despite this potential, nearly all renewable fuels and chemicals are now produced from edible resources, such as starch, sugars, and oils; the challenges imposed by notoriously recalcitrant and heterogeneous lignocellulosic feedstocks have made their production from nonfood biomass inefficient and uneconomical. Here, we report that N,N-dimethylacetamide (DMA) containing lithium chloride (LiCl) is a privileged solvent that enables the synthesis of the renewable platform chemical 5-hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF) in a single step and unprecedented yield from untreated lignocellulosic biomass, as well as from purified cellulose, glucose, and fructose. The conversion of cellulose into HMF is unabated by the presence of other biomass components, such as lignin and protein. Mechanistic analyses reveal that loosely ion-paired halide ions in DMA-LiCl are critical for the remarkable rapidity (1-5 h) and yield (up to 92%) of this low-temperature (<or=140 degrees C) process. The simplicity of this chemical transformation of lignocellulose contrasts markedly with the complexity of extant bioprocesses and provides a new paradigm for the use of biomass as a raw material for a renewable energy and chemical industries.