We’re all familiar with counterfeiting, but most of us probably think of money when we hear the word. In reality, it’s a problem that affects products across both the public and private sectors, costing billions of dollars annually and, in the case of Defense Department (DOD) acquisitions, endangering the functioning of the critical equipment that protects our country.
Fortunately, Alison Smith, a materials engineer at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, has devised a system that could enable the verification of military hardware using just a smartphone. By using nanomaterials to create unique patterns on products, authentic parts or devices can be labeled and later identified using markings that are impossible to replicate. Smith’s inventive use of this exciting new technology made her the winner of the 2018 SAMMIES People’s Choice Award.
The SAMMIES are an esteemed awards program sponsored by the Partnership for Public Service that recognizes remarkable work done by career federal employees. Last week, Christopher Dorobek, host of the DorobekINSIDER, spoke with Smith about nanomaterials and their potential for combatting counterfeiting.
Growing up in a family with many public servants, Smith knew that she wanted to put her science and engineering skills to work for the greater good. As a materials scientist, she was drawn to the DOD by the resources and cutting-edge research possibilities available there and has since put them to good use. Unthinkable just 15 years ago, the nanomaterials that she and her team now work with may be the future of product identification and verification.
The materials Smith uses live up to their prefix – the naked eye can’t decipher the identifying markers that they’re used to create.
“Nanoscale materials generally fit the definition of materials that have one dimension,” Smith said. “So X, Y or Z, that’s less than 100 nanometers. So that’s very, very small.”
The tiny crystals of the nanomaterials, however, reflect light in a specific pattern that — and here’s where the counterfeit deterrence lies — is completely new and unique for each deposit that Smith’s team makes.
To Smith, “The most important thing about this is these nano fingerprints are physically unclonable, so they cannot be replicated.” Each individual pattern can be recognized, though, meaning there’s great potential when it comes to the reliable identification of sensitive devices, especially considering that the nano fingerprints can be read by something as simple as a smartphone.
Smith’s goal is to deliver a secure and reliable system of product identification, and these nanomaterials appear to offer just that.
“We can use that unique pattern as a fingerprint for track and trace technology throughout the entire supply chain,” Smith said. “From initial production all the way down to end use.” This development, then, is potentially revolutionary in ensuring the authenticity of important products and equipment.
Regarding the DOD, Smith focuses on the nanomaterial’s potential to help securely identify microelectronics, which are both vital and at significant risk of being counterfeited.
Microelectronics are used in many of the DOD’s most critical systems, such as weapons and communications, and Smith worries that “…unreliable microelectronics puts those systems, and subsequently our warfighters and their mission at risk.”
By making these devices much harder to counterfeit, Smith and her team are helping to ensure the safety and operability of some of our country’s most sensitive systems, but it is not just the public sector that will ultimately benefit from these advances. Smith also sees great potential for private companies and manufacturers that face the threat of counterfeiting.
As Smith puts it, “Counterfeit goods are pervasive across a vast array of markets. One of these is the pharmaceutical industry, and that issue is being coined ‘Murder by Medicine.’ So we see lots and lots of industry sectors that need the same kind of technology.”
So, when can those industries expect this technology to become available? Not immediately, says Smith, but she is hopeful about implementing it in the DOD.
“We have demonstrated that this can be done and that it can also be analyzed with a handheld smartphone. Next, it’s in the stage of scalability, and actual prototyping.”
Once that’s done, the technology that Smith and her team have created may be a major step forward in improving the reliability and consistency of government acquisition, and, eventually, of product identification across every sector of the economy.