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Crop Science Society of America
5585 Guilford Road • Madison, WI 53711-5801 • 608-273-8080 • Fax 608-273-2021
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Contact: Susan V. Fisk, Public Relations Director, 608-273-8091, sfisk@sciencesocieties.org

Alkaline soil, sensible sensor

Field sensor quickly, accurately identifies soil issues

Aug. 2, 2017 - Producers sometimes face challenges that go deep into the soil. They need answers to help the soil, on site. A portable field sensor can accurately measure minerals in soils more easily and efficiently than existing methods. And a research team, including a middle school student and her scientist father, can confirm it.

Calcium carbonate covers this soil layerCalcium, like other minerals, is necessary for healthy plant growth. However, an excess of calcium — particularly in the form of calcium carbonate — can cause issues as it builds up in the soil.

“Calcium carbonate is basically a type of salt. It dissolves in water after a rainfall event and moves down through the soil,” explains David Weindorf. Weindorf is at the Department of Plant and Soil Science at Texas Tech University.

One main source of this calcium is limestone. At low levels, it makes thin threads or small white masses in the soil. However, in extreme cases it can actually take over the entire subsoil. Its hard surface can limit the ability of plant roots to grow. Getting this information on-the-fly is important for growers and soil scientists solving problems in the field.

Traditionally, soil scientists use their expertise to look at the soil and determine the stage of the calcium visually. There are also laboratory-based techniques that are very accurate, but they are not portable. The researchers wanted to see if a portable x-ray device — called PXRF, portable x-ray fluorescence spectrometry — would be better.

Based on their comparisons, the researchers found that, indeed, the device is a good method for measuring the calcium in the soil. The device can provide data on about 20 different elements, all in 60 seconds.

This can be a big advantage for soil scientists working in the field. It can also help scientists and farmers in developing countries who can’t afford expensive laboratory tests, or don’t have the expertise to visually appraise the soil.

Using PXRF spectrometer to scan soil samples“We are not advocating doing away with traditional assessment. We are simply providing a new data stream to help field soil scientists when evaluating carbonates in the field,” Weindorf explains. “Essentially, PXRF is another tool in the tool belt of the modern soil scientist, but it is by no means the only tool.” 

Weindorf’s daughter was also part of the research. For Camille, this study was a way to branch out for her school’s science fair and do some original research. She scanned the soil samples and then helped her father perform the laboratory tests. She also helped calculate the summary statistics and write the paper.

“As a father, I just can’t overemphasize how proud I am of my daughter for taking on this science challenge with me,” he says. “I hope a project like this can inspire other students around her age to engage in original scientific inquiry. Truly, they are the future which will keep our country at the forefront of scientific innovation.”

Read this study in the Soil Science Society of American Journal. Support for this research came from the BL Allen Endowment in Pedology at Texas Tech University.

Soil Science Society of America Journal, www.soils.org/publications/sssaj, is a peer-reviewed international journal published six times a year by the Soil Science Society of America. Its contents focus on research relating to physics; chemistry; biology and biochemistry; fertility and plant nutrition; genesis, morphology, and classification; water management and conservation; forest, range, and wildland soils; nutrient management and soil and plant analysis; mineralogy; and wetland soils.

The Crop Science Society of America (CSSA), founded in 1955, is an international scientific society comprised of 6,000+ members with its headquarters in Madison, WI. Members advance the discipline of crop science by acquiring and disseminating information about crop breeding and genetics; crop physiology; crop ecology, management, and quality; seed physiology, production, and technology; turfgrass science; forage and grazinglands; genomics, molecular genetics, and biotechnology; and biomedical and enhanced plants.

CSSA fosters the transfer of knowledge through an array of programs and services, including publications, meetings, career services, and science policy initiatives. For more information, visit www.crops.org