How to solve global challenges with NIR spectroscopy

The world of spectroscopy is vast and includes technologies such as fluorescence, VIS, NIR, Raman, and LIBS. All of them have unique benefits, and to make them meaningful, we should understand their power. In other words, if we can’t know where technology can be used to solve practical issues, it becomes useless. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is the value technology can bring to someone’s daily life.


This is also how the value of NIR spectroscopy should be evaluated; how big of an impact can it have on some global issues we are facing in the next decades?


The demand for food production increases 70% by 2050

Crazy, isn’t it? Food production is facing unforeseen challenges because of the growing population. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has estimated that we need to increase food production 70% by 2050 in order to feed 9 Billion people. This has to be done with the same amount (or less) resources.


This means big challenges in crop optimization, such as creating optimal growing circumstances for plants. Precision agriculture (or, smart farming) is a big trend that is searching for solutions to this global issue.


Optimization requires better analysis, and spectroscopy is a good tool for this as it can bring the analysis previously done in laboratories to farmers’ hands. The applications are suitable e.g. for grain analysis to tell farmers the concentrations of protein and moisture. NIR technology has also been successfully used in soil analysis to optimize fertilization. It can also be used in animal feed quality control. All of these measurements can be realized as hand-held portable units or they can be integrated into harvesters, combiners, milking robots or other farming equipment. So, I think it’s fair to say that NIR technology will play a big part of the solutions for challenges in food production.


Sustainable manufacturing processes through digitalization

The level of automation and the number of robots has been increasing remarkably in the last decades. One big trend enabling this is digitalization and the use of big data for improving the quality of production.  The benefits of digitalizing industrial processes include better quality, higher yield, optimized raw material usage, savings in energy and, of course, reduced waste. Basically, digitalization aims to create more sustainable processes, which creates new opportunities for sensor development.


I feel that it is very important to understand the most critical process parameters (CPP) in the manufacturing industry. Many existing process sensors are only able to tell physical parameters or simple chemical information, like temperature, flow, color change or pH. This is where spectroscopy could help. NIR sensors are able to create data or trend information of manufacturing processes, which could increase the opportunities of enhancing production quality and optimizing processes while manufacturing food and beverages, pharmaceuticals, bioprocesses, or petrochemicals.


Energy production should grow 37% by 2040

According to estimates the global population will grow from 7.3 Billion to 8.5 Billion by 2030.

17% of the existing population still lives without electricity. This has an effect on not only food production, but this also challenges energy production too. The demand for energy has been predicted to grow 37% by 2040. When hoping that the role of fossil fuels will decrease at the same time, this will increase the pressure to develop more efficient and sustainable energy sources in the next decades. One natural option is to increase bioenergy production using the likes of biogas, bioethanol and biodiesel.


Ethanol and hydrocarbons are well known applications for NIR sensors. The trend towards biofuels creates new needs for better quality control in biofuel production and logistics chains. Engines can use this information as well to optimize the performance of automotives or generators, which will then save energy and create less emissions.


The amount of plastic waste is increasing

In the last 60 years, the use and production of plastic has been growing exponentially. Even though recycling has increased, plastic waste has increased even more. Researchers have found that humans have generated 8.3 Billion metric tons of plastic - and only 9% of this has been recycled. The projection of plastics production is from 8.3 Billion up to 34 Billion metric tons by 2050. And most of these materials will end up to landfills, natural environments or seas. This is already generating and will, of course, generate even more huge ecological issues in the longer run.


Many sorting and recycling technologies today are based on optical spectroscopy technologies. NIR technology can easily distinguish different plastics from each other and improve the efficiency of recycling dramatically. The need for better recycling will increase in the future, and we’ll hopefully start seeing affordable sensors to be a part of the solution in this huge ecological challenge by creating new environmentally friendly concepts, not only for plastics but for textiles as well.


Saving lives with the right medication

Counterfeit pharmaceutical products are a huge problem worldwide and are making big losses, even hundreds of Billions, for pharmaceutical companies every year. But an even bigger problem occurs when these counterfeit drugs are supposed to save someone’s life.  

Every 45 seconds a child dies of malaria, a disease that can be cured with the right medication. Unfortunately, it has been estimated that 116’000 deaths happen annually in Sub-Saharan Africa due to fake medication. The World Health Organization (WHO) is working with Interpol and local law enforcements to fight against illegal drugs, but the challenge is to find affordable and fast field inspection tools for officials.


Many of the existing technologies are based on visual inspection. Serialization, equipping products with their own unique serial number, is making it a little bit harder to do business with illegal products and helps tracking products through their entire supply chain. This is only a small part of the solution.

NIR sensors can be a huge help in this fight against counterfeit pharmaceuticals, as they can tell the fingerprint of different pharmaceutical substances and store this data into a chemical library. Existing portable NIR units are light-weight, easy-to-use and fast - and give reliable results for police officers, customs or other field inspectors in just a matter of seconds.


NIR Spectroscopy - a solution for global problems?

We can recognize many global issues from food and energy production to safety issues, where the next level of finding sustainable solutions could be reached by deploying NIR spectroscopy to daily use.

Spectroscopy won’t solve all these problems, but it could (and should) be seen as part of the solution on the way to improving existing methods.

This evolution will offer new global business opportunities for agile companies. Let us help you build the next generation material sensing solutions for fixing global challenges, and prove the value of technology.


By Janne Suhonen, CCO, Spectral Engines