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Researchers develop laser technology that identifies minerals in real time

30th July 2019

In order to develop this technology, the researchers from the Institute for Systems and Computer Engineering, Technology and Science (INESC TEC) used a technique known as LIBS (laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy). The prototype, which was initially developed under the scope of an European project that explores abandoned mines, could have numerous applications in several sectors of activity, from environment to agriculture, health, cultural heritage, among others.

This technique allows to spray the mineral sample placed on the laser, creating a plasma that, when it cools down, it emits the specific energy lines of each element. It is from these data that the artificial intelligence system understands which element should be identified and its corresponding quantity.

“A single element can have hundreds of energy lines and a raw material can have thousands of them. Basically, understanding the energy lines of each element is having access to a fingerprint of the element”, explains Pedro Jorge, a researcher of INESC TEC's Centre for Applied Photonics and one of the inventors of this technology, which already has a patent application submitted.

One of the validations tests of this laser system took place in a UK mine when some of the autonomous robots for mining developed by INESC TEC brought minerals to the surface that the geologists couldn’t identify. “The system successfully analysed several samples in real time, quantifying and identifying the materials”, explains the researcher.

Besides being applied to different sectors of activity, this solution will allow to take advantage of materials in the specific context of mining, in order to save resources and to reduce the environmental impact. This group of researchers saw two projects being recently approved, both of them funded by the Foundation for Science and Technology, which will allow them to study technology in contexts such as lithium mining, soil contamination and precision agriculture.

Now, the goal is to transfer this technology to the industry in smaller and portable models.

“Companies with this kind of semi-portable systems already exist. The problem is that they don't have the algorithmic capability to identify and quantify certain elements. We were able to immediately identify the lithium content, among other elements, through our prototype”, concludes Rui Martins, also a researcher of INESC TEC and coinventor of the submitted patent.

For more information:

Joana Coelho

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