Today, we move up the agrifood value chain from Nubocha’s plant-based, farmer-friendly ice cream to cutting-edge soil analysis technology.
San Diego-based X-Centric Sciences is building a ‘point-and-shoot’ soil characterization system that can give farmers and agronomists an accurate soil carbon reading in the palm of their hand within seconds, rapidly accelerating the process. This could prove a game changer as agriculture becomes increasingly tied into emerging carbon markets.
Get the lowdown from X-Centric co-founder and CEO Roozbeh Ravansari (RR), below.
AFN: What problem is X-Centric trying to solve, and how does your technology offer a solution?
RR: I am excited to be working on next-generation soil characterization systems as part of the X-Centric team. Portable x-ray fluorescence – often termed “pXRF” – is a powerful instrument capable of simultaneously quantifying many elements in a single analysis. Modern pXRF instruments look like guns. You point and shoot your samples with x-rays resulting in characteristic signals which are detected and related to elemental composition.
For many soil and agriculturally relevant elements, total concentrations can be rapidly quantified using pXRF under the right conditions which enables modelling of agronomically relevant parameters and can help inform soil management. However, carbon cannot currently be quantified using pXRF. At X-Centric we are researching and developing next-gen pXRF instrumentation systems enabling rapid soil characterization, including for soil carbon analysis and much more. This is achieved via our proprietary multi-sensor approach to soil characterization.
AFN: What gives your company its competitive edge and differentiates it from others trying to solve the same problem?
RR: pXRF instruments are incredibly powerful and can characterize elemental composition of samples for a large swath of the periodic table; but unfortunately, they cannot generate carbon data directly.
X-Centric’s own Z-Plane Detector has quantified carbon and density in soils but does not work without an x-ray source. There are many companies attempting to quantify carbon in soils using visible near infrared (VisNIR) technology, but this method does not generate the elemental data you would get with pXRF, nor do you obtain density. Our proprietary multi-sensor approach to soil characterization involves the integration of these sensors and means we’re obtaining a more holistic picture of the soil than what you would get with any single sensor. Where one is weak, the other is strong: they are highly complementary. And the wealth of data we obtain means we can generate more accurate models and more data with which to inform soil management and soil carbon sequestration efforts.
Our competitive edge stems from our team’s strong technical background and the fact that we’ve been researching and developing these sensors for a long time in a proprietary fashion; patents have been filed along the way [and their] earliest priority dates go back to 2014.
David Weindorf [vice president, research and innovation, Central Michigan University] is X-Centric’s advisor and he pioneered the use of pXRF combined with VisNIR. He has over 180 publications on the subject. Matthew Tighe [associate professor, University of New England] is also X-Centric’s advisor and he has pioneered x-ray analysis methods for application to soils. My co-founder Junghyun Lee has a background in engineering, and I developed the Z-Plane Detector myself over the course of my PhD. We’re a group of dedicated soil scientists and engineers who have been working on solutions for a long time and are ready to bring our innovations out of the lab and into the world via commercial products and services. We know what needs to be done, we know how to do it, and now it’s time for the rubber to meet the road. Pedal to the metal!
AFN: Could you share some case studies and figures to illustrate the impact your technologies and solutions have created so far?
RR: Traditional methods of soil carbon analysis such as dry combustion can cost approximately $25 per sample and take up to six minutes per sample, after labour intensive processing. The instruments for such can cost as high as $200,000; they are big bulky machines that take up a lot of lab space and require special lab reagents. Our portable instrumentation has generated results in 30 seconds and will cost at least an order of magnitude less, meaning a much higher throughput at a lower cost. Furthermore, it is eco-friendly as there are no hazardous chemicals used or produced as byproducts.
AFN: What have been some of the biggest challenges for your company so far? What have been some of the biggest successes?
RR: One of the biggest challenges has been sourcing sensor parts due to recent supply chain disruptions. We find ourselves having to wait longer than we would like to receive the parts we order. One of our biggest successes so far has been the recent allowance of our patent covering our Z-Plane Detector, along with our acceptance into AgFunder’s GROW Impact Accelerator.
AFN: What does ‘impact’ mean to you personally and to your organization? Why is environmental and social impact so important?
RR: Simply put, to me, positive impact means improving lives. This can take many forms and at X-Centric we are improving lives by facilitating rapid soil characterization.
Soil carbon is important to agricultural systems because it is a key variable in overall crop productivity and soil health. There is an increasing body of literature that suggests soil health affects the nutrient content of produce. Ensuring people have access to healthy, nutritious food is requisite for a functional society. X-Centric’s soil characterization systems may facilitate emerging agricultural carbon markets, soil carbon sequestration, regenerative agriculture, and associated efforts to increase soil health, thereby helping feed our planet’s growing population while simultaneously alleviating climate change. Equally important, our instrumentation may also help inform soil management, which can help our farmers more efficiently use their limited resources – for example, through targeted fertilizer applications.
We can maximize our positive impact by building the soil characterization systems others use in their operations. In this way, we strive to be enablers of quality science. As a for-profit public benefit corporation, these values are enshrined in our corporate DNA, within our public benefit statements paraphrased as follows: decrease the cost of quality science, facilitate environmental sustainability, and take care of our employees.