Advances in NIR grain analysis

by Richard Mills
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Technology suppliers like to trumpet all sorts of features about their latest innovations, but sometimes it is the users who point out the real selling points. Such was the case at a recent grain conference showcasing an update of a well-known grain analyzer. After all the highlights had been presented, it was an almost overlooked feature that created the most interest: an improved data transfer function that will help to speed up reporting activities.

This example shows that product development is all about finding the right match between new technology and emerging user demands; in this case, a relatively simple communication facility matching the need for effective data handling in support of increasingly important documentation of analysis results. As one delegate put it, “You can do the same things with the existing analyzer, but with the new one it will be a lot simpler and faster.”

Often, it is the users of analytical instruments who are also the ones pushing the boundaries in terms of new applications for near infrared (NIR) analysis. Just one example is in the application of online grain analysis to help ensure the quality of incoming grain shipments.


For international grain suppliers like Netherlands-based Meneba, quality control of raw materials has traditionally been a time consuming task. A new system based on NIR analysis is set to change that.

Instead of taking a manual sample from ships for analysis in the laboratory, samples are now fed directly from the silo to a waiting NIR instrument which then makes a measurement automatically every 10 minutes. The instrument is not ATEX classified, so it is housed in a small room next to the silo. The diverted grain samples are fed back into the main flow. A study has shown that the NIR analysis results are just as good as with conventional analysis.

The system saves time in the laboratory and results in more representative measurements, for instance, with respect to a recent large shipment of wheat that was delivered in two lots. A drop in protein of around one-half percent was discovered between the two. “You can imagine if we had missed that,” said Meneba’s Marcel Bruggermann, who is in charge of implementing the project. “We would have huge problems with our final products.”

Meneba said it expects a rapid return on investment through the use of actual quality data of incoming wheat and mixes.


The Swedish grain cooperative Lantmännen is using NIR analysis to measure mycotoxin levels. A calibration for analysis of wheat and barley has been developed based on ergosterol — asteroid alcohol that occurs in mold. Ergosterol has been chosen because it is unique to fungi, there is an established reference method, and it correlates with several mycotoxins.

The NIR calibration is used by Lantmännen for instruments at grain elevators. It provides an alert for loads that may require closer attention or special storage requirements. “We are talking about a fast way of estimating mold as a risk assessment tool,” said Lantmännen’s Thomas Börjesson, who is leading the project. Börjesson stressed that the system needs to be seen as part of a broader mycotoxin management package, including cultivation strategies and historical information about growing conditions.


Ethanol production is predicted to reach 60 billion liters (15.6 billion gallons) by 2010, and while debate continues over whether biofuel will ever be economically produced from so called second-generation sources such as straw and grass, it appears that primary sources such as sugar and maize will be quenching the thirst of rising biofuel demand over the coming years.

NIR analysis is already widely used in  the ethanol industry. In the U.S., for example, it is in use in over 60% of all ethanol plants for obtaining optimal yield and testing distillers’ dried grains with solubles (DDGS) for feed purposes. It is also an important part of a project being run by science-based consultancy ADAS U.K. Ltd. to find a type of wheat for ethanol production that is both economic and environmentally friendly.

A “Green Grain” project is being run to demonstrate the potential of breeding wheat that requires less nitrogen fertilizer, has a higher starch content and results in less nitrogen emissions without sacrificing yield.

The analysis work is focused on protein content rather than starch, which is considered the obvious parameter to measure when optimizing ethanol yield. This is because starch is problematic for rapid analysis with near infrared due to the lack of a stable reference analysis method. However, rapid NIR analysis of protein is proven and available. And protein content has a direct link to alcohol yield, a fact well known by whisky distillers who favor wheat with lower protein content, at around 11.5%, compared, for example, to the normal 13% protein used for making bread.

Lower protein wheat is also good for the environment, because it requires less nitrate fertilizer.

This creates a win-win situation in which ethanol yield can be maintained but with reduced environmental load and reduced cost for fertilizer.


One of the factors limiting even more use of NIR analysis is that instruments need to be checked periodically.

This can be a major consideration for those such as the Agroreso cooperative research organization in France, which serves the grain industry with a network of 1098 NIR instruments. Thankfully, the use of so-called Artificial Neural Network (ANN) calibrations available with leading-edge NIR analyzers is making it simpler and quicker to check individual instruments than with the previously used Partial Least Square (PLS) calibrations.

A three-year study conducted by Agroreso found that it was possible to save time on a full standardization for most of the instruments — almost 90% of instruments measuring wheat protein and 80% for instruments testing barley. The simplification can only be obtained with the instruments using the ANN calibrations. It has enabled the standardization of all the instruments in the 10-week period with just one team of six people instead of two teams of four people as before.


Developments in NIR analysis are not just limited to new analytical possibilities. Existing applications are also being made simpler and improved on an increasingly stable technology base, for example, with analysis across a broad temperature range well proven and accepted.

Improvements are being made in analysis speed and sample throughput rate, helping instrument users at intake stations to cope with ever larger collection areas. Likewise, simple-to-use interfaces and usability are contributing to analysis efficiency. Some analyzers now offer a broader near infrared bandwidth for analysis of increasingly relevant parameters such as brightness in barley, chlorophyll in rapeseed and whiteness in flour as an additional option to the existing ash value.

Also, those involved in running analysis instruments can enjoy the time-saving options now becoming available through the timely application of information technology. All that’s needed is a simple USB stick and a network connection, and suddenly the whole idea of near infrared analysis becomes a more manageable, if not essential, part of grain handling operations today. 

Richard Mills, FOSS international market communications, can be reached at