2018 People's Choice Award

Alison Smith, Ph.D.

Pioneered the use of nanoparticles to mark sensitive military equipment with a unique fingerprint to guard against counterfeit products and protect our nation’s warfighters

The Department of Defense spends billions of dollars a year on parts for weapons and military equipment that run the gamut from microelectronics for fighter jets and missile guidance systems to materials used in engine mounts. If a shady operator along the supply chain slips in counterfeit or potentially defective components, it puts at risk the nation’s security and the lives of military service members.

Alison Smith, a materials chemist with the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Crane, Indiana, discovered a promising innovation to deal with this huge risk—the use of nanomaterials to mark and track electronic components and military parts to assure their authenticity.

Her innovative research has “opened the door to a new age of anti-counterfeiting and anti-tampering measures” that could help prevent malfunctions in strategic weapons systems, said Jonathan Dilger, director of research at the Naval Surface Warfare Center.

“The threat to national security of counterfeit products is all too real,” Dilger said. “Alison is specifically focused on researching the potential benefits of using nanotechnology to identify legitimate components and prevent counterfeit, faulty parts from entering the supply chain.”

Smith and a team of researchers at Indiana University grew tiny crystals, or nanoparticles, in unique geometric patterns. When inserted on an electronic component or a part used by the military, these nanoparticles reflect light in a way that creates a unique marker that cannot be replicated or tampered with and does not affect functionality.

These fingerprints can be read with any properly equipped camera, including a smartphone, so in the future, the military could use an app to quickly and easily check the authenticity of a component.

At the moment, counterfeiting is relatively easy and has become a significant problem with microelectronics, the building block of today’s technology, said Brian Sabo, chief engineer at the Naval Surface Warfare Center. Robert Walker, chief technology officer at the center, said some suppliers, especially small companies across Asia, take old parts from U.S. electronic components, sand off the lettering, paint on new lettering and “sell it back to us.”

Smith’s use of nanotechnology could put a stop to that. The next step is to take her discovery from the laboratory to the real world by applying for a patent and licensing companies to use it, not only for military components, but also potentially for other products.

The pharmaceutical and fashion industries have been especially hard hit by counterfeit products. To fight the problem, the pharmaceutical industry could use the nanoparticle fingerprints Smith developed to tag medications, making it possible to check their origin and if the “use by” date has expired.

“She has created a fingerprinting technique that could be used for almost anything,” Dilger said.

To push her unique idea forward, Smith had to overcome doubts within the Department of Defense. “People want new approaches and solutions, but they are very skeptical of it,” she said.

Smith was persistent, reaching out to experts in the field, communicating within DOD about the importance of her work, seeking collaborators and creating a network of supporters for the project.

“Our number one goal is to support the warfighter by enhancing DOD capabilities,” Smith said. “That takes a lot of effort, patience and finding the right people to back you up.”

Beyond this new technique to identify counterfeit parts, Smith and her team are exploring nanotechnology to improve the durability of components used to build military systems that often must withstand harsh conditions.

This research could also apply to broader U.S. infrastructure systems. Currently, alloys used to build much of the nation’s infrastructure are susceptible to corrosion and are therefore costly to maintain. Smith is researching ways to make these alloys more corrosion resistant, which could produce massive savings on repair and replacement costs.

Outside the laboratory, Smith has worked with young people to promote interest in science and engineering, and developed a science curriculum used in local schools.

“It’s so important to empower the next generation of scientists and engineers,” she said. “I feel that is an extension of my job.”