A new Tel Aviv University invention - a real-time "Optical Soil Dipstick" (OSD) - provides a new diagnostic tool for assessing the health of the planet. Professor Eyal Ben-Dor, of TAU's Department of Geography, says his soil dipstick will help scientists, urban planners, and farmers understand the changing health of the soil.

With climate change altering the planet, Ben-Dor explains that this dipstick could instantly tell geographers what parts of the U.S. are best — or worst — for farming. For authorities in California, it is already providing proof that organic farms are chemical-free, and it could be used to catch environmental industrial polluters.

Simple and inexpensive ways to test for soil health in the field are hard to come by. Soil maps of individual states are only compiled every 10 or 20 years, and each one costs millions. One testing process requires the use of a bulldozer, which dredges up large tracts of land to be sampled and analyzed in a laboratory.

The OSD is a thin catheter-like device that is inserted into a small hole in the soil to give accurate and reliable information on the general health of the soil. Analyzing chemical and physical properties, the dipstick outputs its data to a handheld device or computer. The dipsticks can also be remotely and wirelessly networked to airplanes and satellites, providing the most comprehensive soil map of the U.S.

"To optimize production and save costs, farmers need to know if their crops are getting the right blend of minerals. This tool could permit them to pursue 'precision agriculture,'" says Ben-Dor.

The OSD, which is expected to cost about $10,000 per unit per application, allows technicians to determine if the soil needs water or is contaminated. It also provides information about the condition of root zones where crops are growing.

Currently, the OSD is in a prototype stage and is set for commercialization. If the right strategic partner is found, a new device could be on the shelves, and in the ground, within the year.

(Tel Aviv University)