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A Revolutionary Approach to Combat Illegal Logging by UAlbany Chemists

By Nina Faupel | March 4, 2024

Chemist Rabi Musah (left) and postdoctoral associate Allix Coon (right).

Tackling illegal logging and deforestation is Rabi Musah, a chemist and professor at the University at Albany. With her research team, Musah is pioneering an innovative technique to differentiate legal and illegal timber which has proved to be a success despite difficulty in differentiating wood samples. The goals of this project were reported in a UAlbany press release

Amidst a remarkable surge in the global wood processing industry, valued at an astonishing $143 million as of 2022, a concerning issue currently threatens the sector. Illegal logging, especially in tropical regions, not only jeopardizes economies but also poses threats to plant and wildlife species and to climate change.

The chemist's breakthrough lies in a new approach, utilizing mass spectrometry to create a distinct chemical “fingerprint” for each tree species. This method enables authorities to quickly determine if harvested wood is from a protected species, providing a crucial tool in the battle against illegal logging.

Musah, together with co-founder Allix Coon, a UAlbany doctoral graduate and current postdoctoral associate, has established Sangali, a start-up dedicated to developing and bringing this identification technique to market. Sangali addresses the need for accurate, reliable, and prompt identification of wood species and their origin.

Sangali's method relies on mass spectrometry, an analytical technique measuring the mass-to-charge ratio of ions in a sample. Similar to matching a person's fingerprint against a database, trees have species-specific chemical fingerprint signatures. With the integration of advanced machine learning tools, the Sangali research team is constructing a comprehensive chemical signature database of domestic woods for precise species identification.

Sangali's wood species identification process applies to samples in their natural form, such as logs, planks, shavings, or finished goods, providing results in just 15 minutes.

Sangali recently achieved a significant milestone by securing a $275,000 National Science Foundation Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Phase I grant. This highly competitive program, funding approximately 400 companies annually, underscores the potential impact of Sangali's innovation. The funds are utilized to acquire verified domestic wood species, conduct mass spectral analyses, and develop a robust database. Ongoing research involves exploring the technique's capability to identify mixed-species composite materials and determine the geographic origin of wood species.

Musah and Coon are also exploring ways to offer on-site analysis through a portable device that rapidly scans wood products for species identification. This development could revolutionize the industry by enabling real-time identification and preventing illegal loggers.

As Sangali continues to make progress in its mission, the innovative wood identification technology emerges as hope for preserving forests, safeguarding endangered species, and promoting sustainable practices within the wood processing industry.


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