Mines News

Release Date Friday, September 7, 2018

Two New Research Grants Help SD Mines Target the Illicit Economy

This image is a covert security feature that can be made invisible to the naked eye. The image was printed by SD Mines researchers with nanoparticle ink produced by scientists at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. The covert security marking can only be seen under 980 nanometer wavelength light.


Researchers at South Dakota School of Mines & Technology are helping uncover and stop underground criminal networks that illegally traffic in everything from electronics and drugs to organs and weapons. These illegal activities are a multibillion dollar drain on the U.S. economy and a threat to global and personal security. Two separate grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to Mines’ Center for Security Printing and Anti-Counterfeiting Technology (SPACT)  help forward crime fighting efforts.

Building the Next Generation of Science-Based Crimefighters

The modern problem of counterfeiting is far beyond printing fake money. Counterfeiters are selling a huge range of goods from sneakers to fire alarms to medicine; and many consumers are unable to tell the difference between faulty, and sometimes dangerous, counterfeit products and the authentic versions. The counterfeiting epidemic is now a $1.5 trillion global enterprise. Counterfeiting is a serious safety and national security concern, and this illegal activity negatively impacts nearly every economic sector.

The National Science Foundation has awarded a $3 million grant to a new project called the Cyber-Physical-Social System for Understanding and Thwarting the Illicit Economy. Jon Kellar, Ph.D., SPACT Director and a professor of Materials and Metallurgical Engineering at SD Mines, is leading a team of researchers that includes Grant Crawford, South Dakota School of Mines & Technology; Ashley Podhradsky, Dakota State University; Brian Logue, South Dakota State University; and Stanley May, University of South Dakota.

The project is part of the NSF Research Traineeship (NRT) program that is “designed to encourage the development and implementation of bold, new, and potentially transformative models for STEM graduate education training. The NRT program seeks proposals that explore ways for graduate students in research-based master’s and doctoral degree programs to develop the skills, knowledge, and competencies needed to pursue a range of STEM careers.”

The project includes a comprehensive approach that combines three collaborative research areas. One part of the project deals in the physical world, including the effort to identify counterfeit items, such as pharmaceuticals, and work on anti-counterfeiting efforts such as the use of nanoparticle-based inks in unique markings to identify authentic goods. A second branch of study focuses on the cyber world and it includes internet-based investigations such as digital forensics and an effort to better understand the cyber/physical interface. The third part of the project is the social world and in building a cultural understanding of the counterfeiting and illicit economy this includes, understanding crime trends and the human factor in the design of anti-counterfeiting systems.

NRT Diagram 3

“This traineeship program is the first of its kind in the country aimed at producing the next-generation of science-based leaders in the fight against counterfeiting and disrupting the illicit economy,” says Kellar.   

This NSF award is one of 17 projects in total that include $51 million in funding tied to the NRT program.   

Thwarting Counterfeiting with Cutting Edge Technology 

A second grant from the (NSF) totals $300,000 and helps scientists identify how illegal networks operate. The Early-concept Grant for Exploratory Research (EAGER) includes both South Dakota School of Mines & Technology and Colorado State University to help target and take down illegal networks. 

“Our role will primarily be printing of security features on goods that might be targeted by counterfeiters,” says Kellar

This research at Mines is one of nine NSF-funded awards aimed at disrupting these illicit supply networks. An NSF press release states, “The new awards support research that combines engineering with computer, physical and social sciences to address a danger that poses significant consequences for national and international security. Nimble and technologically sophisticated networks traffic in contraband that includes people, illegal weapons, drugs, looted antiquities and exotic animal products. Unencumbered by national boundaries, they funnel illicit profits to criminal organizations, and fuel transnational and terrorist organizations.”



About South Dakota Mines  

Founded in 1885, South Dakota Mines is one of the nation’s leading engineering, science and technology universities. South Dakota Mines offers bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees and a best-in-class education at an affordable price. The university enrolls 2,493 students with an average class size of 24. The South Dakota Mines placement rate for graduates is 98 percent, with an average starting salary of more than $70,036. For these reasons  South Dakota Mines is ranked among the best engineering schools in the country for return on investment. Find us online at www.sdsmt.edu and on FacebookTwitter, LinkedInInstagram, and Snapchat.

Contact: Charles Michael Ray , 605-394-6082, Charles.Ray@sdsmt.edu

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