Cutline: Holding a nearly century-old medicine pouch, Domingo Tamayo reveals its contents, two copper rings, on a screen attached to a
Micro CT scanner.
RAPID CITY, S.D. (Aug. 12, 2013) - We've all seen it. The promise of a miracle weight loss drug or that designer handbag for a steal. Counterfeit goods promise untold bargains - and counterfeit currency, unmatched wealth. But underneath the savings lurks a hidden cost.
Counterfeit currency causes losses of billions of dollars annually to government and private industry, while posing a host of other security and national safety concerns. And unlike fake sunglasses, fake drugs can kill their purchasers.
But as counterfeiters grow in sophistication, so too does security technology.
Now, a new group of elite students have been recruited to the cause.
Ten students, ten weeks, one mission: develop security printing and anti-counterfeiting technology (SPACT) to make forgery a nearly impossible crime.
Since late May, undergraduates from around the country have immersed themselves in this endeavor through a brand new National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) site focused on SPACT at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology.
"Research projects range from security printing of covert anti-counterfeiting markings on pharmaceutics to the forensic analysis and authentication of Native American arts and crafts to the development of new encoding and recognition techniques for biometric security applications," Grant Crawford, Ph.D., principal investigator of the REU site and assistant professor in the Department of Materials & Metallurgical Engineering, explains.
And the students' motivations vary as widely as their research.
Sophomore Sierra Rasmussen hails from Missouri S&T in the metallurgical engineering department, but her father studied a little closer to home. A School of Mines alumnus, he encouraged Rasmussen to apply. She excitedly complied. Now, she works with silver nanoparticles, printing them into the shape of a QR code antenna.
Students have also printed QR codes which are invisible under ambient lighting conditions but readable with a near infrared laser and were successfully scanned using a smart phone. Meaning QR codes, which traditionally fall under the purview of information sharing, have opened a whole new domain of security applications.
Mines researchers have even successfully deposited codes onto high bond paper and glass to demonstrate possible covert and forensic security printing applications, as the features remain unseen to the naked-eye at low concentrations of nanocrystals.
A junior at the School of Mines, Domingo Tamayo's father played an important role in his decision, too.
"My father works with the Smithsonian," Tamayo said, adding he grew up at the intersection of research, history and cultural development.
But the real spark came when he discovered an intersection of his own, as past and present collided.
Tamayo is from the Rosebud Reservation, with deep roots in Native American culture, a tie he maintains at the university. He's been elected this year's president of Mines' American Indian Science & Engineering Society.
But he's also a physics major with an insatiable thirst for scientific discovery.
And so he embarked on a historical mystery, preserving the past through today's hi-tech tools. Holding a medicine pouch that's 70 to 100 years old, Tamayo explains that it was originally an attachment to a bustle, a bundle of feathers given for war deeds and acts of bravery - knowledge gained thanks to the expertise of The Heritage Center at Red Cloud Indian School. Out of respect for the individual, he didn't want to open the pouch. His curiosity for its hidden contents, however, remained unquenched.
Using a Micro CT scanner and noninvasive analyzing techniques, he set to unraveling history's mystery.
With a click, a multicolored 3D image appears on the screen, slowly rotating, mesmerizing its viewers. There appear to be two rings. Tamayo says that an x-ray fluorescent analyzer measured a huge spike in copper, revealing the rings' makeup. Then another image appears, a bundle of strands curved along the vessel's interior. "We think it's a plant. But we're not sure. It's too thick to be human hair," Tamayo muses, eager to learn more.
Like Rasmussen and Tamayo, site students were selected from a national pool of applicants representing a wide range of science and engineering disciplines. This multidisciplinary approach doesn't stop with undergraduates though, Crawford notes. In fact, "the key principle of the site focuses on bringing together multiple science and engineering disciplines for a common goal of developing new anti-counterfeiting technology. The ongoing collaboration of site research faculty - from the University of South Dakota (USD), South Dakota State University and SDSM&T with backgrounds ranging from biochemistry to electrical engineering - provides a collaborative foundation for the REU site. For instance, materials chemists at USD are synthesizing up-converting nanoparticles to be incorporated into new formulations of security ink by materials science engineers at SDSM&T and subsequently printed using advanced manufacturing technology."
Even as summer fades, the mission remains clear, leaving students secure that their ideas will have impact - and that impact will leave the public a little more secure.
Founded in 1885, the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology is a science and engineering research university located in Rapid City, S.D., offering bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees. The university enrolls more than 2,400 students from 32 countries, with a student-to-faculty ratio of 14:1. The average starting salary for 2012 graduates was $62,696 with a 98 percent placement rate. Find us online at www.sdsmt.edu, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sdsmt and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/sdsmt.