ICFR lab offers new opportunities for research and innovation

January 14, 2021

Glen Cooper (Stellenbosch University) and ICFR’s Richard Burgdorf in the field where soil core samples are extracted to investigate the contribution of regolith (the material between bedrock and topsoil) to plantation productivity.

The development of an Analytical Laboratory Service (ALS) Platform at the ICFR has led to a resurgence of laboratory-based forestry research and a number of exciting new projects and services.

Forestry is often perceived as a largely field-based practice. However, behind the scenes research and development in a laboratory can be crucial to decision-making and for enhancing yields. In particular, new technology and applications are developing rapidly, going beyond traditional research into areas such as improved seedling production and quality improvement of non-timber forestry products.

In 2018 the ICFR was awarded funding by Forestry South Africa (FSA) to establish an Analytical Laboratory Service (ALS) platform for forestry. This platform is specifically funded to provide analytical capacity to the public and private forestry sector, and is available at reduced rates to FSA members.

The focus of the work is on application and implementation rather than pure academic research, serving as a link between academia and industry, transferring scientifically informed guidelines and solutions to both established and emerging growers.

The ALS is a multi-disciplinary facility managed by Senior Scientist Dr Richard Burgdorf and staffed by scientists, technicians, interns, and students from around the country. The platform provides routine analytical services with a focus on forestry-specific analytical methods, which can differ from those typically used in other forms of agriculture.

Michael Buthelezi, Nkosinathi Kaptein and Richard Burgdorf busy monitoring pot trials at the ICFR facility.

High-tech equipment
For the past 30 years, the ICFR lab has primarily been performing soil and plant analyses for forestry research trial projects. However about eight years ago the ICFR team did a major overhaul of the lab and acquired high-tech equipment for quantitative elemental analyses. This included a Leco Trumac CNS analyzer to determine the percentage of total carbon, nitrogen, and sulphur in soil or plant material. With the increased focus on climate change, carbon analysis of forestry soils and products is important for offsetting carbon tax and accessing foreign markets. Also, soil carbon can be important to inform fertilizer rates at establishment as higher carbon soils have higher levels of nutrient retention.

The lab is also equipped with an Agilent Microwave Plasma Atomic Emission Spectrometer to analyze other macro- and micro-nutrients, such as potassium, calcium and phosphorous in soils or plant material.

The lab has been supporting key research on site resilience since 2013, led by Nkosinathi Kaptein and his team of research technicians.

This work investigates the decline in soil nutrients at trial sites around KZN under different management practices. The high quality data produced in the lab is essential to understand the processes taking place in the field and how management practices such as residue removal or burning affect long term productivity and sustainability.

Another project that connects plantations to the laboratory is the Forestry Sector Innovation Fund project by Stellenbosch University PhD student Glen Cooper. This project is investigating the contribution of regolith (the material between bedrock and topsoil) to plantation productivity. Soil and rock cores from up to 30 meters deep were extracted at SAPPI Highflats and are being analyzed in the lab.

Glen Cooper with soil core samples, part of the investigation into the contribution of regolith to plantation productivity.

Other important routine work includes the analysis of wood density for tree breeders. Wood properties are crucial factors that are of interest to breeders in order to develop more productive varieties that are better suited to market needs.

Recently the ICFR research laboratory has returned to its roots in wattle research. To complement the established wattle breeding program under Principal Scientist and Wattle Breeder Dr Julian Chan, Richard Burgdorf has initiated new research on wattle bark, the source of mimosa extract powder. This bark extract powder is a significant source of income for wattle growers and a major international export product for the region. It is used primarily in leather tanning and the manufacture of adhesives, but other applications such as in animal nutrition and the bio-economy are emerging.

Letho Nzimande (ICFR) and Preesha Bridglall (NTE) busy with the wattle bark research project.

The research is being funded by government via the DST Forestry Sector Innovation Fund administered by Forestry South Africa, with co-funding by NTE, UCL, and the South African Wattle Growers Union.

Richard leads a team which includes two post-graduate students, Preesha Bridglall, an NTE employee who will be doing an MSc at UKZN under Professor Mark Laing in Plant Pathology, and Andrea Davis, a PhD student in the Chemistry department at the University of Free State under Dr Susan Bonnet. Geoff Tomlinson and Kashri Bissessar (UCL), Leon van Kralingen (NTE) and Letho Nzimande (ICFR) are also part of the project team which is investigating different aspects of wattle extract quality.

These projects are using cutting-edge, high-tech techniques including electrospray ionization mass spectrometry, nuclear magnetic resonance, and near-infrared spectroscopy to develop tools to understand and improve the wattle bark characteristics that affect extract quality. Ilaria Germishuizen will also contribute to the project by analyzing the impact of climate and geography on wattle bark characteristics .

Near infrared technology
The ALS lab is rapidly pursuing the expanded implementation of near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) coupled with chemometrics, to develop a wide range of analyses in diverse fields, such as wood analysis for cellulose, soil organic carbon, soil texture and plant nutrients.

The benefit of this work is to offer low cost analysis that can rapidly deliver high amounts of lab data to growers and researchers. New frontiers in this technology are being explored and some exciting novel applications are emerging, such as seed analysis.

NRF intern Nkosi Mhize (pictured above) is party of a team investigating the potential of near-infrared spectroscopy to predict seed quality and vigour. Other team members include Nuveshen Naidoo (ICFR) and Mike Kruger (Top Crop Nursery).

NIR for seed screening
The Seedling Growers Association of South Africa has funded a feasibility study to investigate the potential of near-infrared spectroscopy to predict seed quality and vigour non-destructively, rapidly and inexpensively. The team includes Richard, Nuveshen Naidoo (ICFR), NRF intern Nkosi Trywell Mkhize and Mike Kruger from Top Crop Nursery. So far the results look promising and the ICFR is applying for a MSc project for Nkosi at UKZN to test this technology in a wider range of crops and applications.

The ICFR’s long-term seed storage facility, which conserves genetic material of more than 40 different Eucalyptus species, will also play a role in this work.

The ICFR laboratory continues to provide high quality research for the benefit of the forestry sector, while exploring new applications, protocols and technologies that can be of use to growers and researchers.

For more information contact Richard Burgdorf 
Richard.burgdorf@icfr.ukzn.ac.za, or lab@icfr.ukzn.ac.za.

Related article: York funds research in timber structural engineering innovation

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram