NRC brings laser precision to agriculture; takes aim at mining industry

- Vancouver, British Columbia

Speed and accuracy of soil testing vastly improve

Technician using LIBS equipment

For farmers, the ability to perform accurate soil testing and analysis is of critical importance. Results from these tests help determine the soil's current composition and what additional nutrients may be missing for crops to thrive. But using methods originally developed in the 50s is leaving room for improvements.

The most common method of soil analysis in use today requires a lab technician to add harsh chemicals to a sample of soil before using a cumbersome method of extraction and analysis to identify its detailed composition. The tedious process is slow and comes with a wide margin of error. Test the same sample three times in a row and you could obtain three different sets of results.

Enter the National Research Council and Charles Nault, the co-founder of a Canadian company called Logiag, and a home‑grown solution was soon in sight.

In 2010, Nault, happened to read an article about NRC's work with Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS) technology. LIBS enables users to quickly and accurately identify and calculate the concentration of various elements in different compounds.

Quebec‑based Logiag has been serving the needs of the farming industry since 1999. "The article got me thinking," says Mr. Nault. "I went to the NRC lab in Boucherville, and asked researchers there if the technology could be used to identify soil composition. It turned out they'd been thinking the same thing, and we started working together to develop the technology."

Taking the technology to market

LIBS equipment

While it took some time to adapt LIBS technology for soil testing and to develop the computer algorithms needed to interpret what the instrument was seeing, the end result was impressive – a solution to the most common problems relating to soil analysis.

LIBS‑based analysis eliminates tedious sample preparation and is capable of identifying the concentration of a variety of nutrients in a soil sample with near‑perfect accuracy, and in a matter of seconds.

Under licence from NRC, Logiag is marketing the LIBS method as the basis of a new soil-testing service it calls Laserag—and the Logiag laboratory has become the first in the world to earn ISO17025 certification for a process involving the use of LIBS technology.

Through the engagement of NRC's Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP), Logiag also accessed critical research and development funding, technical advice, and business connections that are helping them expand into international markets.

What's next for LIBS technology?

At NRC, Sevan Bedrossian, leader of the High Efficiency Mining program that is co-investing in LIBS technology, sees great potential for this kind of industrial research and development partnership. "Our collaboration with Logiag shows how NRC engages with innovative industrial service suppliers to develop and deploy new technologies," he says. "We are already exploring additional applications for LIBS technology in the mining industry."

Bedrossian is hoping that LIBS could be used to help deliver on‑site analysis of ore samples to online instruments, allowing for "real‑time" process control and automation. "LIBS could be as much of a game‑changer in mining as it is proving to be in agriculture," he adds.

For Nault, who has seen the possibilities offered by the technology first hand, the potential is there to explore. In fact, he'd bet the farm on it.

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