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Growing research to help agriculture

March 01, 1999 Share This!

RICHLAND, Wash. – The local community probably doesn't associate Pacific Northwest National Laboratory with the agricultural industry in the Mid-Columbia. But as a Department of Energy multi-program national laboratory, we focus on a wide range of research areas including health, energy, environment and national security. It may be surprising, but research programs in those areas have many applications within the agriculture and food processing industries.

For instance, we are using our expertise in genetic engineering and chemistry to create plants that produce additional useful products. We also are bringing satellite technology to monitor crops, developing food safety detection systems and devising new ways to treat farm and processing wastes.

Although the laboratory has been involved with agriculture-related research since the 1970s, we recently have refocused our efforts on providing science and technology resources to this field. We are doing this in a variety of ways, including adapting technology developed for one field of use and making it fit agricultural needs. The laboratory also is developing new programs and technologies with the goal of commercializing the technology and making it readily available to agribusiness.

It only makes sense for the laboratory to bring its capabilities to the emerging problems of agriculture and food production - especially when we are located next to one of the most fertile farming areas anywhere.

Science and Technology for Agriculture

Production Advanced sensors developed by the laboratory on behalf of government agencies to monitor environmental changes or to gather intelligence information now are being adapted to provide farmers with information that can be used to manage their operations by analyzing field and crop conditions. For example Pacific Northwest has developed specialized methods to apply satellite and aerial imagery to assess when crops are under stress from disease or pests, need more or less irrigation, or require more fertilizer.

In addition to acquiring information using sensors and satellite imagery, we develop decision making support software that incorporate macro economic models with crop production models created by agronomists at WSU and other universities, adding in parameters such as weather and market forecasts. When integrated, the sensor technologies and decision support systems provide real-time, precision information that helps farmers and other resource managers make timely, site-specific decisions about their operations in ways that improve productivity, increase profits and avoid adverse environmental impacts.

We are primed to apply this technology for farmers, industry service providers, and other federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Bureau of Land Management. In fact, we are currently developing new programs to adapt remote sensing technologies to develop tools to monitor range lands so that these tools can be used by ranchers leasing range for cattle grazing and by agencies responsible for maintaining range in a state of good health.

Further, we recently have started a new Richland-based company called Advanced Geographic Information Systems (AGIS) that draws upon these technologies. AGIS combines advanced sensory and information technologies to provide services to farmers worldwide. We continue to advance technology by developing in-field sensors and linking those sensors to field equipment with radiotelemetry so that inputs such as soil moisture, nutrients, and chemicals are applied precisely as required for specific portions of a field. For example, Pacific Northwest and other area researchers are developing systems that could take the data from in-field moisture sensors and automatically control irrigation systems to apply varying amounts of water depending on the specific needs of specific sections of land.

An Environmental focus

Many technologies not only benefit farmers and land managers, they also have a positive impact on the environment. When farmers use sensors to know the exact status of plants and soil, they can graze fewer cattle or use less irrigation and apply fewer chemicals. The resulting environmental benefits naturally dovetail with the laboratory's Department of Energy mission.

In related fields, Pacific Northwest is working to bring advanced science to bear on major environmental and health questions that affect the economic success of farm operations. The use of herbicides, fungicides and pesticides are key to the production of bountiful crops, but there are ongoing concerns about the effect of these agents on human health and the environment in general. Pacific Northwest has done work for agricultural chemical companies to provide information needed for Environmental Protection Agency product registration. This work builds on the extensive expertise the laboratory has in tracking contaminants in the environment at Hanford and other areas. We have very sophisticated methods of determining what happens to chemicals in the environment, how they travel and decompose, and estimating the exposure of humans, animals and plants. These scientific models also are tested using unique facilities, such as the laboratory's research wind tunnel and advanced chemical analysis laboratories. Using these resources, scientists have done important work in looking at the dispersion of pesticides and their effect on public health and the environment.

Our work will lead to a more precise understanding of agricultural chemicals and their effects, and provide policy makers with highly accurate information to enact realistic environmental standards for theses products. Only through advanced science techniques will we be able to ensure both public safety and optimum crop production.

Adding Value to Agricultural Commodities

American farmers are the most productive in the world, but a great deal of the agricultural tonnage resulting from farmers' investments and effort are not utilized fully. A lot of agricultural production is left in the field as residue (leaves, straw, stover, etc.) or becomes waste during processing (culls, hulls, peelings, pulp, etc.). Even when such non-food, or low-value portions of a commodity are utilized, the market for the recovered product is usually as livestock feed, which does not provide a very high economic return to the producer. In some cases these products can even become a financial liability, as some food processing and farm wastes have no food or feed uses and can be difficult to dispose of properly.

Researchers are working on methods for turning agricultural commodities, by-products, and wastes into higher-value products, particularly energy and chemicals. Pacific Northwest has developed technologies that can open the door to entirely new uses for farm products, which in turn can create new markets and support commodity prices.

The Pacific Northwest has developed a process that converts corn into a cost-effective, environmentally friendly source of chemicals used to make polymers, clothing fibers, paints, inks, food additives, automobile parts and other industrial and consumer products. In this process, succinic acid is produced by fermenting the sugar found in corn, then is converted to chemicals that are used to make an assortment of products. The multi-step process was developed with researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Argonne National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and is being commercialized in cooperation with Applied CarboChemicals.

The laboratory also has created processes for converting low-value agricultural products or wastes to energy - such as an alternative fuel component that can be used in cars and trucks. This catalytic process can convert levulinic acid, a compound derived from plant waste, to energy at very low costs. The Department of Energy currently is funding the laboratory to convert acid generated from waste from the pulp and paper industry, but other planned projects will use waste from food processing, particularly the sugar industry, while another option would be to convert manure from feedlots.
Food Processing

Over the years, Pacific Northwest has developed several technologies to measure and monitor various things ranging from the properties of metals and other materials during manufacturing processes to aircraft components in the field to the contents of Hanford waste tanks. Now those capabilities can be applied in the food processing industry, as we are adapting advanced sensor technologies to inspect food products and to monitor and control processing operations. We believe our techniques can provide added value, improve the quality and safety of food, and lower processing costs.

Custom sensor systems provide the ability to detect physical defects or to measure food quality elements such as firmness, moisture, or nutritional content (e.g., sugar or fat content). Such sensor systems also have been used to inspect packaging and continuously monitor process conditions and equipment to enable better process control or to predict and prevent failure of process equipment.

For instance, Pacific Northwest has developed a customized, integrated system that uses multiple on-line sensors to detect cutting defects in vegetable processing and to detect wear and breakage of the processing machinery. This system is being deployed by the project sponsor in their plants worldwide to ensure high quality products and to prevent shipment of products with metal fragments. Another device developed for this manufacturer provides in-line, real-time monitoring of moisture in vegetable products.

Other quality inspections systems developed at Pacific Northwest include in-line optical and x-ray systems that inspect packaging materials to identify defective cans, bottles, and package seals. Some of these systems have incorporated the ability to detect the presence of contaminants, ensuring that safe, high-quality food and beverage products are shipped by manufacturers.

In addition to inspecting products after processing or, checking the integrity of a package, or monitoring a single food process machine, we also have technology that can monitor a process and adjust it in real time to ensure consistently high-quality products. The laboratory can help processors continuously monitor how well products are mixed or blended together, preventing incomplete mixing, agglomeration (clumping), inconsistent particle sizing, or other product variability undesirable to consumers. Using knowledge derived from years of studying high level waste tanks, the laboratory has developed advanced technologies than can penetrate solid walls of pipes or mixing vessels, allowing processors to monitor the blending of ingredients on the processing line rather than performing laboratory measurements later on.

Designer Plants

Biotechnology already has brought several enhancements to plants and crops important to agriculture, such as disease resistance, enhanced product quality and increased yield. Pacific Northwest's scientific base in molecular biology promises to deliver more exciting improvements to plants and should result in enhanced profitability for growers and processors.

Laboratory researchers now are working to endow plants with novel traits which are expressed in very specific parts of a plant, such as the roots or leaves only, and are expressed at very precise times in a plant's life. Among other benefits, this could provide the capability to derive two products from one plant. For example, our scientists are looking at using plants to produce pharmaceutical products that currently are synthesized from chemicals or extracted from animals or bacteria. Creating these products from plants reduces the chance of transferring viral infections from animals to humans and could reduce the cost of producing many drug products, while introducing new market opportunities for farmers and processors.

If successfully done in potatoes, for instance, growers could sell the tubers as food and the plant tops as a pharmaceutical component - resulting in two revenue sources from one plant.

Additionally, controlling the location of genetically engineered traits can help productivity with traditional crops. For instance, carrots have protein that prevents frost damage. If that protein could be moved from the carrot root to the leaves of other plants, it could allow earlier planting and reduced loss to frost.

National Research and Technology - Local Opportunity

Just as NASA's space research gave us Tang, Department of Energy research has resulted in useful, although not as well known, products. In fact, the Department of Energy strongly encourages its labs to transfer government-developed technology to the private sector. This is accomplished in many ways, including providing licenses to existing companies, participating in joint-ownership companies and creating entirely new local companies.

Today, irrigators nationwide are benefiting from a technology originally developed to prevent root growth into buried low-level radioactive waste. The ROOTGUARD® technology was licensed to a company that now manufactures root-control technology for agricultural underground irrigation systems. Numerous other technologies also have been licensed to national and regional agribusinesses in recent years.

AGIS, the newly formed company mentioned earlier, is an example how Battelle, which operates Pacific Northwest, not only licenses advanced technology, but also invests funds to create a local company.

Pacific Northwest also has helped to launch several other agricultural related companies through its entrepreneurial leave of absence program, which helps staff members to start a local business (usually based on laboratory technology). Through this program, the laboratory helped launch a Prosser-based company that produces a mechanical grape pruner called the Vinemaster. And through the entrepreneurial leave of absence program and support of the Agri-business Commercialization and Development Center, the laboratory has helped attract new local companies, including Northwest Strawboard and New Horizon Technologies. Northwest Strawboard produces particleboard from the bountiful amounts of straw left over from grain production in the Northwest and plans to locate in an existing Port building in Pasco this year - employing 33 people and using more than 25,000 tons of straw per year. New Horizon irradiates agricultural and packaging products to ensure they are not contaminated with harmful bacteria and plans to build a commercial irradiation facility in the future. With these companies locating in the Mid-Columbia region, we are helping to grow the local the economy while striving to help the agricultural sector address science and technology needs.

As global population increases, farming and food processing will become more important than ever before and at Pacific Northwest we believe we have the right kinds of skills to help solve problems and enhance the ability of farmers to feed the world safely.

Tags: Energy, Environment, Fundamental Science, National Security, Operations, Renewable Energy, Chemistry, Biology, Facilities

Interdisciplinary teams at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory address many of America's most pressing issues in energy, the environment and national security through advances in basic and applied science. Founded in 1965, PNNL employs 4,300 staff and has an annual budget of more than $1 billion. It is managed by Battelle for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. As the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, the Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information on PNNL, visit the PNNL News Center, or follow PNNL on Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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