Nanotechnology: The Next Frontier for Maritime Security?

Tuesday, February 20, 2007
By Joe DiRenzo III and Chris Doane

Over 20 million shipping containers enter the U.S. each year, most onboard ships. These containers are the life blood of a national economy fed by an industry that depends upon the just-in-time delivery of goods and supplies rather than maintaining expensive inventories. Any actions that slow the flow of these containers will have a significant economic impact. Yet containers are very affordable, Council on Foreign Affairs’ Dr. Stephen Flynn noted in his book “America the Vulnerable” (Harper Collins), “The challenge of securing the loading and movement of containers is formidable. Anyone who has $3,000 to $5,000 can lease one of the many millions of containers that circulate around the globe. They can pack it with up to 65,000 pounds of items, close the door, and lock it with a seal that costs a half-dollar.”

Continues Flynn, who is a retired Coast Guard officer, “The box then enters the transportation system, with all the providers working diligently to get it where it needs to go as quickly as possible. Accompanying documents usually describe the contents of the cargo container in general terms. If the box moves through intermediate ports before it enters the United States, the container manifest typically indicates only the details known to the final transportation carrier. For instance, a container could start in Central Asia, travel to an interior port in Europe, move by train to the Netherlands, cross the Atlantic by ship to Canada, and then move by rail to Chicago.... On average, overseas containers will pass through 17 intermediate points before they arrive at their final U.S. destination, and often their contents come from several locations before they are even loaded into the box."

The combination of tremendous volume, need for rapid movement and complex transport mechanisms severely challenges security systems thus creating a huge potential for terrorist to use containers as modern day Trojan Horses to smuggle weapons of mass destruction (WMD) into the United States. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol has launched several global initiatives to improve container security while minimizing impact on flow. These initiatives focus on ensuring the legitimacy of the shippers and protecting the containers from tampering as they move along the transportation system; an effective effort that makes exploitation of containers more difficult, but far from impossible.

Scientists and engineers are hard at work seeking technological solutions to the container security challenge. One area that offers promise is nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is the development of devices, such as sensors, that are on a nano scale. [Note: To give the reader an ideal of the scale involved a nanometer is one billionth, or 10-9 of a meter.]

The National Nanotechnology Initiative, which is the federal research and development program that brings together 25 federal agencies including three with direct ties to the maritime sphere including the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Commerce and the Department of Defense, notes that nanotechnology is: the understanding and control of matter at dimensions of roughly 1 to 100 nanometers, where unique phenomena enable novel applications. Encompassing nano-scale science, engineering and technology, nanotechnology involves imaging, measuring, modeling, and manipulating matter at this length scale.”

The importance of using nanotechnology within the world of maritime and container security has taken on a whole new meaning throughout those agencies involved in maritime homeland security. Speaking from his office at the Coast Guard Research and Development Center in Groton Connecticut, Rich Hansen, the center’s Program Area Manager for Sector & Port Security Operations, noted that “we (The Research and Development Center staff) see nanotechnology as having the potential to improve current mission performance and create new capabilities that currently don’t exist.”

Hansen continued, “Improvement in performance could be the miniaturization of existing tools such as communication gear or boarding team inspection tools. Inspection tools for drugs or explosives that currently are too large to go aboard the vessel being inspected, might one day be included in small handheld devices. These smaller form factors might one day allow the boarding team to climb aboard over Jacob’s ladder or be dropped onboard from a helicopter with the equivalent of today’s small laboratories worth of analyzers.”

Added Hansen, “The creation of new capabilities could be in the area of surveillance sensors that today require a manned aircraft or helicopter to fly for short durations to be miniaturized with significant reduction in power requirements to allow small unmanned aerial craft to patrol for extended duration without burning up flight crew hours. The same advancements in underwater sensors could allow the deployment of small autonomous underwater vehicles to monitor vessel traffic.”

To understand how nanotechnology can be applied to determine if there are chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear materials inside a container, the authors contacted Dr Morton L. Wallach President of PEL Associates, a technology and innovation company recently honored by the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology (CCAT) as a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract winner. Wallach, a former Fulbright Scholar, says nanotechnology can most definitely be applied in this case. “We (PEL Associates) have developed technology which can readily achieve the goal of container security at a low cost. The method is based on smart sensors, a version of which is being developed for DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency).” Added Wallach, “In this approach micro-sensors (~2-3mm spheres) are designed with surface groups reactive with chemicals and biological hazards. On reaction the sensors emit an agent specific color or IR signal wirelessly to a control system.”

Continued Wallach, “In the case of a dirty bomb or WMD the sensors are designed with a conductive coating. In the presence of such hazards which characteristically emit energetic particles the air in the container becomes ionized and on contact with the sensors the conductivity is changed in a characteristic manner which is picked up wirelessly by central control systems.” Wallach concluded by noting how the nanotechnology is physically applied, “the sensors are impregnated on to the surface of a thin plastic film which is adhered to the wall of the container.” According to Wallach the cost is “very small,” about 3-5 cents per sensor or five dollars per container.

Other potential applications for nanotechnology in container security include container tracking and tampering detection. International forums have been discussing applications to place electronic “tags” and “seals” on containers.

Nanotechnology could be used to tag containers for tracking movement from truck to ship to dock to truck again, providing a constant “updated position”. Seals impregnated with nano-sensors could be applied to container door systems to keep an electronic “guard” on the doors. If the container is opened in an unauthorized manner, the sensor would detect the entry and send an alert.

The need for the United States to embrace technology, especially regarding the on-going global war on terrorism, was re-enforced by Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Robert S. Mueller III, who on June 22, 2004 before the Council on Foreign Relations noted, “It does not take long for terrorists to catch on to our technology and to adjust. In the future, it must be upgraded on a continuous basis so that we stay several steps ahead of our enemies.” Nanotechnology offers great promise for a myriad of inexpensive security applications.

About the authors: Joe DiRenzo III and Chris Doane are both frequent contributors to the Maritime Reporter. Both are retired Coast Guard officers and Visiting Fellows at the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Virginia. Both have written extensively on maritime and port security issues.

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