New soil test company on the block

New technology is bringing another way to test the soil on your farm

LaserAg offers these small cups for soil collection. Sample takers can use LaserAg’s software to determine where to sample. Scanning the bar code on the top of the cup with a smartphone after the sample is taken will automatically record information about the sample, including the exact location. Filled cups can be submitted by mail, and results will be returned electronically within two weeks.

Jacques Nault’s brother Charles Nault first heard about Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS) technology at a pharmaceutical conference. “It was presented as a tool to do quality control, to make sure pills contained the right molecules,” Jacques Nault says.

As co-founders of LogiAg, an agronomy service and technology firm based in Chateauguay, Quebec, the Nault brothers began imagining how LIBS technology could be used in the ag sector. “We discovered it was used the mining industry, it was used in the metals industry, it was even used on the planet Mars.” If they can use it on Mars, the brothers asked, why couldn’t we use the technology to analyze soils on Earth?

Simplified, LIBS technology shines pulsed laser beams on material, then uses computer software to analyze the light that reflects back. The “spectral analysis” of this light can reveal information about the make-up of the material. Using this technology to analyze soil, the brothers realized, could be faster and more precise than traditional soil testing methods, and would require a much smaller sample.

They sought out more information. “The LIBS expertise in the mining industry was at the NRC,” (the National Research Council), Nault says. Coincidentally, the NRC lab was only a half hour drive from their LogiAg office. And, the type of work the Nault brothers wanted to do — commercializing research technology for use in the private sector, was “dead on with the NRC’s mandate.”

“By January 2011, we had a research project going with the NRC,” Nault says.

Research proceeded until 2013 when, Nault says, “the NRC came to us and said ‘we are not able to get any closer than about a 50 per cent error in the results.’” That is, the soil analysis generated with LIBS technology only matched results from established seed labs about half the time.

While the results of the spectral analysis were consistent, new computer algorithms were needed to convert the data to useable results. “There are huge databases,” Nault says. “We need to apply special math to make sense of it.”

Calibrating results

“This is where we made a big decision,” Nault says. Instead of giving up on the project, they put their software development team to work, creating a new database and developing algorithms to make sense of their numbers.

The spectral signature for each soil sample was detailed, but not directly linked to the typical results farmers expect from a soil science lab. The Naults needed a way to convert those results to information about plant-available nutrients in the soil.

The Naults began to examine countless soil samples, comparing their LIBS results with results from traditional soil-testing labs. When results didn’t match, they tweaked their algorithms until they had formulas to convert their numbers to traditional results. Then, they tested their results against more samples, performing the same iterations over and over again. Most of their samples were sent to four different labs, three times each.

“We paid a fortune in lab fees,” Nault says.

The process took a lot of computer power. A small company could never have purchased enough computer power to do work like this 10 years ago, Nault says. But today, he says, “we have about a dozen servers.”

Now the Nault’s soil testing process has a one per cent error, as compared with results from traditional labs, and their analysts aren’t finished yet. “Western Canadian soils are different, geologically, from eastern Canadian soils,” Nault says. “We have to calibrate from those soils.” The Naults’ team is analyzing western Canadian samples and developing workable algorithms.

Nault is optimistic that they will have their algorithms in place to offer soil testing through their specialized company, LaserAg, in Western Canada by September. They hope to work with an agronomy service company, certifying agronomists to take samples and use their LaserAg process to provide information back to farmers.

For more information visit the company’s website.

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