Portable scanners to detect illegal logging

Using already existing technology Brazilian forest scientists develop scanners to help forest law enforcement. 

Scientists from the Brazilian Forest's Service (SFB) and the Laboratory of Forest Products LPF have developed a near infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) in a portable scanner to identify in real time and almost immediately the species of wood.

This is done as a measure of prevent illegal logging as threatened timber woods when lacking other botanical features are difficult to distinguish. It is expected to help environmental agents, specially on roads and control posts, ports and borders to detect illegal timber and strengthen forest law enforcement.

The scanners work by using an indirect chemical analysis, it involves the interpretation of the near-infrared region of timber's electromagnetic spectrum and the application of chemometrics, the measurement of chemical data.

In everyday language, trees have a distinctive fingerprint such as every human being. Species maintain a similar structural arrangement and traits like their growth rings, figure, texture, brightness and color. These give every tree a different wood surface spectrum that allows their identification.

When scanned, the surface spectrum is compared to a database containing the different tree species particular of the area, one at a time. The unknown sample is checked against every possible outcome until a match occurs.

“Our ultimate goal is to see this technology used to combat illegal logging and help loggers correctly identify forest species,” said Tereza Pastore, Jez Braga and Vera Coradin, collaborators of the project at the University of Brasilia to Mongabay.

NIRS has shown to be accurate 95% of the time. It is also very quickly, as samples just need to be cleaned and sanded before testing. Also, the portable scanners used MicroPhazir and MicroNir are commercially available and easy to use, they also cost about half of conventional analysis. Most importantly, the analysis doesn't generate waste nor damage.

The research has already concluded three trial phases. First one on a farm in Acre, the second one in sawmills in Brasilia and the third in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. NIRS can now identify the national origin of mahogany from Brazil, Guatemala, Bolivia, Mexico or Peru. This refinement could allow in the future to have more accurate and finer scales of identification.

Despite the achievement the project has had some setbacks including high costs, and low financing, and lack of backing in its initial phase. Also, the work required to collect samples of each species was complicated.

NIRS technology has been used by other industries as a quality control tool, but its application for timber identification is still in its baby steps. Pastore, Braga and Coradin have already finished the experimental phase and next year they'll pilot the technology with the Institute of Environmental and Renewable Resources (IBAMA).

“Considering law enforcement will have an agile tool for wood identification in the forest, we believe it can help fight illegal logging, contribute to the preservation of native forests and add value to companies working within the law,” conclude the researchers. 

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