This planet’s population is growing fast.
In 2020, the world’s population reached 7.8 billion people.
Yet, at the dawn of agriculture, at about 8000 B.C., the world’s population was about 5 million. In the next 8,000 years, it grew to between 200 million and 600 million people, with a slow annual growth rate of under 0.05 percent.
The industrial revolution, around 1800 A.D., catapulted the rate of growth to as high as 2.1 percent annually. A doubling of the world’s population occurred in the 40 years between 1959 (3 billion) to 1999 (6 billion). Although that rate is declining, the world grew at about at 81 million people per year by 2020.
That’s a lot of people to feed.
Small family farmers alone produce most of the food people eat—over 80 percent in much of the developing world. Our dependence on agriculture is clear and unmistakable to sustain our growing population.
Yet, resources are challenged. Urbanization along with alternate land uses has reduced available farming lands, and global climate change has worsened the conditions farmers face in producing their crops.
Farmers use a tremendous amount of fertilizers to grow crops. Yet certain fertilizers, for example, urea, is highly inefficient because when applied, up to 50 percent of the nitrogen can be lost through volatilization of ammonia and leaching of nitrate to waterways.
Farmers have turned to humic materials from a class of compounds called biostimulants that, when applied to plants or agricultural soils, stimulate plant growth and productivity.
Biostimulants potentially reduce fertilizer application rates by increasing nutrient use efficiency and increase plant growth and resistance to drought and other abiotic and biotic stresses. Various raw materials have been used in biostimulant compositions. In addition to humic substances, algae extracts, protein hydrolysates and plant growth-promoting bacteria are also employed. 
Farmers give plants fertilizers as nutrients. We know that plants need nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, and micronutrients as building blocks. Biostimulants aren’t nutrients. These substances are called stimulants ― biostimulants. What these biostimulants actually do is cause a mild stress in the plant, which results in a metabolic reprogramming of the plant. This reprogramming results in beneficial changes to key processes such as, photosynthesis, nutrient uptake and production of the plant antioxidant system. Later on in the growing season, if a plant is exposed to stress such as drought, a lack of sufficient nutrients or attack from pathogens, it is in a stronger physiological condition to handle the stress. And that’s essentially how it works.
Bio Huma Netics, Inc. (BHN) of Gilbert, Arizona offers a variety of products based on humic substances obtained from several humate ore sources. BHN is also involved in research including chemical characterization of humic substances, elucidation of their mode of action as plant and microbial biostimulants and exploring applications in human health. One particular focus is the development of methods for quantification of humic substances in source materials, e.g. humate ores, peats and composts, as well as in products containing humic substances. Humic substances are composed of several operationally-defined fractions. These include humic acids, fulvic acids and humins. Commercial applications are focused on humic acids and fulvic acids. While humic acids are relatively easy to quantitate, a method for quantitation of the fulvic acid fraction has been elusive.
The problem is, up until now, it took a cumbersome, time consuming and expensive wet method to determine the concentration of fulvic acids in a solution a farmer would purchase from a supplier. In addition, this method only quantified a part of the fulvic fraction.
“When farmers buy a product, they want to know how much they're getting,” Bio Huma Netics Senior Director of Research and Development Rich Lamar, Ph.D., said.
Some sellers claim their product is 100 percent fulvic acid. In order to be 100 percent fulvic acid, a product would have to be dry and so this claim is a misrepresentation.
“There is another problem,” Dr. Lamar said. “These (i.e. humic substances) are complex mixtures of thousands of different types of compounds. They come from the microbial breakdown of dead plant materials. BHN just happens to get its humus from soft coals, because soft coal was produced from peat that was produced back in the Cretaceous (era), which was 60 million to 150 million years ago. Now we’re digging it up, and we can extract it to get these humic materials. But the fulvic acid fraction is difficult to quantitate, because it's just not one chemical. It might be composed of 10,000 different molecules.”
The complexity of these fulvic fractions and lack of industry standards regarding concentrations have created a need in the marketplace.
“And so coming up with a technique that can quantitate these fulvic acid fractions quickly and accurately is something that's very necessary,” he said.
“The measurement that's used right now is laborious and time-consuming. It takes days to do it,” he said.
Classically, the way these substances are extracted is through an alkaline extract of soft coal material . From this alkaline extract, the soluble humic substances can then be separated from the non-soluble materials by centrifugation. The humic acids are separated from the fulvic acid fraction by acidifying the alkaline extract to a very low pH. This causes the humic acids to precipitate. The acidified extract is then centrifuged to separate the precipitated humic acids from the fulvic acid fraction which remains soluble. The fulvic fraction contains a “hydrophobic fulvic acid” fraction and a “hydrophilic fulvic acid” fraction. The hydrophobic fulvic acid fraction is that part of the fulvic acid fraction that binds to a DAX-8 resin so it can be adsorbed to the resin to separate it from the hydrophilic fraction, then desorbed, dried and weighed to determine its concentration.
But that only measures the hydrophobic part of the fraction. Products sold to farmers contain the whole fulvic fraction, not just the hydrophobic fraction. Up until now, there hasn't been a way to actually quantify the whole fulvic fraction.
“For example, if you determine the carbon concentration of a product and the carbon that's contributed by that hydrophobic part that binds to the resin, they don’t match up,” he said. “I've done studies that indicate that both fractions contribute to enhancing plant growth. So that's why I want to measure the whole fulvic fraction.”
Every fulvic fraction, with its thousands of compounds, is different. The compounds are like snowflakes. No two are alike. So scientists haven’t been able to quantitate these substances individually.
HORIBA Fluorescence Applications Scientist Linxi Chen, Ph.D. and her use of HORIBA’s proprietary technology, called A-TEEM™ (Simultaneous acquisition of Absorbance, Transmittance and a fluorescence Excitation Emission Matrix [EMM]) successfully quantified the concentration of fulvic acids in these fractions. In a technical note co-authored by both Drs. Chen and Lamar, called A-TEEM Fluorescence for Identification and Quantification of Fulvic Acid Adulteration in Commercial Humic Products, the pair was able to show that the A-TEEM molecular fingerprinting technique can easily distinguish between different components in mixtures that contain fulvic fractions and other ingredients considered to be adulterants, including lignosulphonates, organic acids, molasses, and provides a quantitative evaluation of adulterants in the mixtures.
Dr. Chen performed the analysis on a pure fulvic fraction and the same fraction containing mixtures of various adulterants provided by Dr. Lamar, using a HORIBA Aqualog Spectrofluorometer featuring A-TEEM molecular fingerprinting. Since absorbance and transmittance data is collected at the same time as the fluorescence EEMs, and chemometrics are applied in unison to resolve the inner filter effect, corrected EEM’s are acquired quickly.
In this study, each A-TEEM fingerprint was collected in 40 seconds to 3 minutes, providing a quick and accurate method to identify and quantify the adulterants in the fulvic fraction mixtures.
“This procedure is going to revolutionize the industry,” Dr. Lamar said. “I'm telling you, I can't wait. I'm chomping at the bit.”
Dr. Lamar has collected samples of fulvic acid fractions from all over the world and is analyzing them on the Aqualog. These samples will be used by Drs. Lamar and Chen to develop a standardized procedure for both quantitating fulvic fractions and identifying and quantifying adulterants.
“The reason this is going to revolutionize the industry is we're going to be able to actually quantitate the whole fulvic fraction. This will hopefully dissuade companies from making false claims regarding product concentrations and sale of adulterants claiming to be fulvic acids. It will also provide regulators with a standardized method that can be used to accurately quantitate fulvic acids and provide a base for market regulation,” Lamar said.
Dr. Lamar said he and Dr. Chen plan to write three papers based on their research, with Dr. Chen guiding the way.
“I'm totally new to fluorescence spectroscopy,” Lamar, a former snowboard enthusiast said humbly.
 United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. World Population Prospects: The 2019 Revision
 Carolina, A., de Vasconcelos, F., Helena Garófalo Chaves, L. Biostimulants and Their Role in Improving Plant Growth under Abiotic Stresses. Biostimulants in Plant Science. November 7, 2019.
 Lamar, R. T., D. C. Olk, L. Mayhew, and P. R. Bloom. 2014. A new standardized method for quantification of humic and fulvic acids in humic ores and commercial products. J. AOAC International 97(3): 721 – 730.
 Chen, L., Lamar, R., A-TEEM Fluorescence for Identification and Quantification of Fulvic Acid Adulteration in Commercial Humic Products, www.horiba.com/int/scientific/applications/food-beverage/pages/a-teem-fluorescence-for-identification-and-quantification-of-fulvic-acid-adulteration-in-commercial-humic-products/
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