How Nanoscale ‘Signatures’ Could Keep Counterfeit Parts Out of Military Equipment

Navy scientist Alison Smith will describe her novel authentication system at Smithsonian’s Military Invention Day

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A single counterfeit component in the supply chain is all it takes to turn a fine-tuned aircraft launching system from an asset to a safety hazard. Ryan U. Kledzik/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

For those serving in the United States armed forces, enemy combatants are but one of many on-the-job dangers. Personnel across all branches of the military depend on cutting-edge technology to carry out their operations—and if that technology fails them, the consequences can be disastrous. A single counterfeit component in the supply chain is all it takes to turn a high-powered winch or fine-tuned aircraft launching system from an asset to a safety hazard.

This reality was the impetus for groundbreaking research by Navy scientist Alison Smith, who studies materials science on the campus of the Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) Crane Division in Crane, Indiana. Smith realized that sensitive components could be certified through the use of nanoscale signatures, allowing the military to quickly and easily root out poorly sourced tech and keep its members safe.

Smith will be presenting her work this Saturday at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. for the Smithsonian’s annual Military Invention Day. A collaboration with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the event showcases the contributions of the U.S. military to global innovation. Scientists and engineers knowledgeable about new technologies—from advanced thermal night vision gear to deepfake image detection—will be on hand to explain them, and artifacts from the museum’s Armed Forces History division will be on display as well.

To illustrate the basic principle of nano-signatures in an accessible way, Smith will have museumgoers cut out paper snowflakes, use them to mask the undersides of CDs, and then analyze how the patterns of light the CDs reflect differ as a result. Altering materials at the atomic level is obviously a more involved process, but this demonstration drives home the point that small-scale alterations can have large-scale impacts on a material’s optical properties.

By embedding arrays of crystal nanoparticles in materials, Smith found that she could change the macroscopic optics of those materials in distinctive ways without impairing their functionality in the slightest. Once the military settles on an official protocol for nano-certification, sketchy suppliers won’t have a chance of getting bogus parts into military equipment. Opportunists in China and elsewhere have been known to spray-paint old, shoddy parts and pawn them off as new alongside legitimate vendors; Smith’s tech will take uncertainty out of the equation and allow the military to separate the wheat from the chaff headache-free.

Tina Closser, who coordinates NSWC Crane’s youth-oriented STEM outreach, explained in an interview the elegance of Smith’s research. “At the nano level, [Smith’s team] can manipulate the geometry of these particles the way they want, to make different reflections.” But these unique reflections, crucially, are macro-scale, and they can be verified with basic cell phone cameras like tiny QR codes. With this new tech, green-lighting a part will be as simple for military manufacturers as scanning a printed code is for ticket takers at the movies. Once the camera detects the desired reflection pattern, a dedicated app will inform the scanner that the component in question is legitimate.

This will allow for on-the-fly onsite authentication of components at every stage of equipment assembly. “You can scan it and say, ‘This is a good part,’” Closser summarizes. “If you had to take it into a lab, it wouldn’t really be worth it.” In time, this sort of nano-tagging could extend beyond the military, and bolster quality control in industries the world over.

An experienced educator, Closser is thrilled that Smith will be sharing her revolutionary tech with young people this Military Invention Day—young women in particular. Smith’s story helps quash a common stereotype that military tech is the bailiwick of men and men alone.

“I hope it inspires the next generation of girls to think, ‘Hey, I can do that!’” says Closser.

Military Invention Day runs from 10:00 am through 5:30 pm at the National Museum of American History on May 18. There is no charge for admission, and all ages are welcome.

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