Nano tech promises to become a powerful crime fighter

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Oct. 21, 2003 – There’s a new crime fighter out there. It doesn’t wear tights or swimming trunks, and it’s much smaller than a bird or a plane. More and more, the world’s crime fighters are finding a way to employ nanotechnology in the battle to outwit criminals. 

Several technologies are either hitting the market, or are in the process of being developed for commercial use. Professor Anthony Turner, Head of Cranfield University at Silsoe in Britain, has come up with what some people call a lab on a chip. He prefers to call it “supra molecular technology.” He has found a way to teach plastic to recognize certain molecules, like heroin, cocaine or morphine.

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In collaboration with German conglomerate Siemens, Turner and his colleague Sergey Piletsky have developed several miniature array devices, the size of a pen, which could be useful at a crime site. “You could take an invasive sample such as saliva or urine, dip the device in the sample and within a few minutes, see if the suspect is high,” Turner said. “There is a big demand for this kind of thing in police forces, but also in the workplace.”

The advantage of course, is that it would be quick and that it would save a trip to the lab — a costly and time-consuming step in crime solving. “One day, sensors like those are going to be as prevalent as DNA testing,” said Ottilia Saxl, Chief Executive of the Institute of Nanotechnology. “And you wouldn’t be able to argue with the results.” 

Nanotechnology also can be put to work to prevent crime, by focusing on authentication. Nanosolutions of Germany uses rare earths to guarantee that documents, official or otherwise, are authentic. The company’s product, Ren-x, includes tiny particles of rare earths like lanthanum and yttrium. Particles of these elements between 5 and 15 nanometers in diameter are placed in ink to be used in a regular ink-jet printer.

“The particles are in liquid form when they are printed, but the liquid evaporates,” Stephan Haubold, Nanosolutions’ CEO explained. “You see, paper is a very porous material and the particles make their way into the tiny mountains and valleys in the paper.”

The particles printed onto the paper are invisible to the naked eye. But if you place the printed page under an ultraviolet light, a ghost image made of green and red will appear, proving the origin of the document. The technology can be used anywhere document authentication is needed. Printers equipped with the special ink cartridges could be used in embassies, money-printing plants or at passport offices.

Counterfeiting isn’t limited to currency and James Bond-type diplomatic fraud. It’s a huge problem for the American textile industry. The United States offers tariff breaks to international textile manufacturers who use yarns or fabric made in the United States. But many textile companies wishing to export to the United States make false claims to save money on tariffs. Large sums are at stake. The U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection estimates that $2 billion in illegal textiles enter the country annually. The textile industry estimates the figure is actually four times higher.

To combat this, Los Angeles-based Applied DNA Sciences has come up with an anti-counterfeit textile marker that uses plant DNA to “mark” raw materials, thread or finished goods to prevent counterfeiting or fraud. The marked textiles can reveal information like country of origin and the factory where the item of clothing or other textile product was assembled. “It provides a unique signature,” explained Kristin Gabriel of Applied DNA Sciences. “It would basically take a counterfeiter a lab with 60 people and five years to figure out how to do it.”

Generally, companies that make these products are placing bets on the corporate world rather than state police forces. That’s where the money is.

“The only way these things will get cheaper is if they are produced in very large quantities” for corporate customers, said Saxl of the Institute of Nanotechnology. “Of course, we want the police to have these technologies, but the people who will make it possible to have cheap products are the large corporations.”

Business crime is a problem for many companies. Often victims of this kind of crime prefer to keep things hush-hush, because news of it can further hurt business. As a result, business crime is not easy to accurately quantify.

Brian Connel is Assistant Director of the Scottish Business Crime Centre, an industry group whose members include several of Scotland’s largest companies. “We have to be one step ahead, because the criminal certainly will be,” Connel said, adding that business crime touches all sectors and that it is a major concern for corporations.

“Business crime is not always a top priority for the police, so we really have to see what we can do about it ourselves,” he said. “We have to use all the technology available, including nanotechnology, to fight it.”


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