As Global Food Demand Doubles, Near-Infrared Spectroscopy Technology Steps up to Help Farms Improve Productivity

By Mostafa Medhat – Director of Products, Agriculture & Food

The human race is facing an existential challenge in the 21st century: feeding a global population that’s expected to swell by 2 billion people to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. This incredible expansion will push the word’s agricultural supply to its limits, requiring a doubling in food production by 2050 just to keep pace with the expected population boom.

With no major increase in arable land on the horizon, 90 percent of the crop production growth by 2050 is set to be generated by higher crop yields and increasing cropping intensity. To attain this massive leap in agricultural productivity, farmers increasingly are turning to the field of smart farming, employing technologies including artificial intelligence and the internet of things to gather critical information about growing conditions. Such technologies have led to the dawning of a new information age in agriculture, allowing farmers to collect and analyze data about everything from weather conditions, to temperature, to water usage, to soil conditions—all in real time. Such information can allow farmers to understand the factors impacting efficiency and adjust them to massively increase productivity.

Shining a Light on Harvests

One other technique is attracting attention for its capability to measure the nutrient values of harvested forages used for feed or normal grains: near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS). Simply put, NIRS works by shining near-infrared wavelength light though materials and then analyzing the resulting glow using fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR). Using this technique, NIRS can determine the chemical constituents of forages and crops, allowing farmers to gather critical data on factors contributing to the nutritional quality of these feeds and crops, including protein, starch, fiber, moisture and dry matter.

NIRS can help farmers make critical decisions, including picking the right time to harvest a field. More importantly, NIRS allows farmers to gather critical information about the quality of their crops—helping them to determine what price they can charge for a specific grain—and whether a crop is appropriate for human or animal consumption.

NIRS on the Farm

To capitalize on the potential of this technology, agricultural equipment companies including John Deere and CNH have begun offering machines that integrate NIRS directly into the harvesting process.

For example, John Deere’s HarvestLab 3000 is designed to be mounted directly to forage harvesters, where the device can provide real-time monitoring and analysis of nutrient values. Solutions like HarvestLab provide significant, direct benefits to farmers, including producing higher-quality feed and reducing spoilage.

However, there’s a catch: Such NIRS systems are an expensive option.  The cost is too high for NIRS adoption to spread beyond a small percentage of farm machines. Another market that could also adopt this technology if the price is affordable is the after market for the harvesters and the other machinery.

For NIRS to start having a significant impact on agriculture, adoption of the technology on farms must be widespread—requiring a dramatically cheaper approach.

Bringing NIRS’s Cost Down to Earth

Luckily, a far-less-expensive approach to NIRS has arrived—one that promises to slash costs byorders of magnitude —and to make the technology ubiquitous in farms.

Si-Ware’s line of NeoSpectra sensors are small and low-cost spectral sensors that can conduct NIRS with performance comparable to devices currently on the market. The NeoSpectra sensors are able to attain dramatic cost reduction through miniaturization down to the chip level. By placing all functionality on a single semiconductor device that takes advantage of the economies of scale possible through chip fabrication, NeoSpectra sensors can reduce the cost of NIRS functionality dramatically.

Specifically, NeoSpectra sensors are a type of semiconductor known as a microelectromechanical system (MEMS), a device that combines electronic and mechanical elements onto a single chip. NeoSpectra integrates the optics required to perform NIRS, reducing the cost of implementing such a system. The use of MEMS technology also makes NeoSpectra sensors highly resistant to shock and vibration compared to alternative solutions employing discrete optics. This makes NeoSpectra perfect for use in agricultural applications in rugged environments.

Moreover, NeoSpectra sensors support larger spot-size optical heads than alternative NIRS solutions, with dimensions of up to few cms when needed. This makes NeoSpectra sensors optimal for working with heterogeneous samples, such as grains.

Making Every Acre Count

With demand for food set to double during the next 30 years, the agricultural industry needs to squeeze every ounce of productivity from the available land. The arrival of smart-farm technologies is paving the way for an explosion in crop yields by delivering real-time data that can be used to optimize farming practices.

NIRS is already proving to be a valuable smart-farming tool, allowing farmers to gain valuable, real-time insights about their forages. However, Si-Ware’s NeoSpectra sensing solutions promise to take NIRS to the next level, cutting its cost and increasing its usefulness to the point where the technology could become ubiquitous on harvesters. With the capability to perform multiple types of measuring tasks on farms, NeoSpectra sensing solutions are poised to bring NIRS into the mainstream of the global agriculture business.