SPECTRAL ANALYSIS: Farm aid from spectroscopy techniques

Light-based technologies are increasingly enabling new capabilities for using farm products—and byproducts.

Hyperspectral imaging beefs up

For instance, the beef industry has long wished for an accurate, nondestructive way to assess tenderness. Now, researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) have demonstrated a technology that does that. While the technology is two to three years from commercialization, the researchers predict it will impose a new value structure on beef pricing.

UNL’s system uses hyperspectral imaging technology. A digital video camera and spectrograph measure the two key qualities that affect beef tenderness: video captures the muscle profile (tender beef has fine muscle fibers, while tougher cuts have coarser ones), while spectroscopy measures biochemical properties that indicate how tender the steak will become during aging.

In a recent performance test, the system categorized beef into three tenderness categories with about 77% accuracy, and reached 93.7% accuracy with the less demanding task of categorizing cuts into two categories.

UNL is patenting the technology and seeking a partner for commercialization. A commercial version of the system will need to integrate easily into current meat production processes.

FTIR monitors ethanol production

In ethanol production, cornmash fermentation inherently involves the risk of microbial infection. Current technology, high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), takes about an hour to analyze a sample—and it requires a trained operator and reagent costs. A new method, which uses Fourier-transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy, produces results within two minutes and allows anyone in the plant to test repeatedly at no additional cost. According to John Caupert, director of the National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center, this speed and ease of use could provide a tremendous advantage.

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Ronny Pradon of FOSS, a supplier of analytical systems for food and agricultural-products production, says that while near-infrared (NIR) might be the obvious choice as an alternative to HPLC, studies by FOSS show that FTIR provides the greater sensitivity required for detecting individual components. In particular, measurements of acetic and lactic acid are essential for early detection of infection, but these are only present in low levels. FOSS has vast experience in applying FTIR technology from applications in the dairy and wine industries.

NIRS recovers fertilizers

Similarly, laboratory analysis of animal manure has traditionally been slow and expensive, and sometimes unreliable. An ongoing project by ADAS—an independent provider of environmental consultancy, rural development services, and policy advice based in the U.K.—is working to develop a new near-infrared reflectance spectroscopy (NIRS) method of performing precise manure analysis.

The timing is good, since rising fertilizer prices are a concern for farmers. The NIRS approach would enable analysis of fresh material without sample preparation, and produce results in minutes. –BG

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