"The whole idea is to miniaturize the chemical analysis," says George Lookhart, professor of grain science with K-State Research and Extension. "This way, the lab goes to the sample, rather than the sample going to the lab."
Lookhart is working with K-State assistant professor of chemistry Chris Culbertson and chemistry graduate student Amanda Meyer to develop the hand-held device, which they've termed "Lab on a Chip." The device will allow the user to identify wheat's variety, protein and moisture levels, and quality traits.
"Farmers will be able to check their crop during harvesting and segregate it for protein or moisture or quality to improve the consistency and the price they get," Lookhart says. "To get a quality measurement now takes two or three days. We have to harvest it (wheat), mill it, then bake it and analyze the results."
The research, which began in 2005 and is expected to last three years, was made possible through funding from the Kansas Wheat Commission.
"Once commercialized, this new technology will help producers define the high quality hard red winter wheat produced in the region," says Dusti Fritz, chief executive officer of the wheat commission. "Defining the quality is important because global wheat buyers are becoming more sophisticated and specialized in how they purchase wheat that is suited for specific end-use products."
The technology is probably three to five years from being available to the industry, Culbertson says.
The "Lab on a Chip" device chemically analyzes gluten proteins of wheat in 45 to 60 seconds, Meyer says. Gluten proteins are responsible for the unique cohesive, viscoelastic properties of dough. The ratios of certain proteins in dough determine its mixing strength - a key factor in bread making.
"Tests can be done on a single crushed or cut kernel, rather than having to run the combine through the field," says Lookhart, who worked for years as a researcher for the U.S. Department of Agriculture before taking his current research position at K-State.
The basic "Lab on a Chip" research is being done on wheat, but eventually the technology will be applied to analyze other grains, Lookhart says.