Researcher discovering high-tech security that could be 100,000 times thinner than a human hair

Sara Skrabalak's work to precisely control inorganic nanomaterials could strengthen security on electronics and other products

Sara Skrabalak is the James H. Rudy Professor of Chemistry in the Department of Chemistry within the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University Bloomington. She, David Crandall and Martin Swany are among the IU researchers whose work is being advanced through the Indiana Innovation Institute, or IN3.

IN3, a statewide applied research institute, is composed of top leaders from academia, government and industry. It seeks to solve real-world problems that impact industry and the U.S. Department of Defense in a faster, more efficient and cost-effective way. Currently, it is engaged in projects focused on trusted microelectronics, hypersonics, electro-optics and target machine learning.

Skrabalak was kind enough to answer questions about her work with inorganic nanomaterials and the benefits of connecting with IN3.

Q: Tell us about your work on nanomaterials.

Sara Skrabalak: My group works on how to make inorganic nanomaterials where their size, shape and architecture -- for example, hollow versus solid -- are precisely controlled. Nanomaterials are roughly 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

The reason we try to control these structural features through chemistry is because their properties vary and can be tuned with small changes in size, shape and architecture. In controlling their properties, we can then use them in diverse applications. My group has been largely focused on nanoscale materials for energy applications, but more recently we have been focusing on security-related applications.

Q: How does your research align with "trusted microelectronics"?

SS: We have one project that involves the use of nanoparticles to help secure microelectronics, though the platform could potentially be extended to other sectors of the economy.

Specifically, particular types of nanoparticles can scatter light to create a colorful speckle pattern, much like the stars we observe at night. We use this feature to make "fingerprints," or random patterns of nanoparticles, that can be used to mark critical components. Then those fingerprints can be authenticated to confirm that the component isn't counterfeit or hasn't been tampered with. In this way, the nanomaterials help create trusted microelectronics.

One nice feature is that because of the small size of the fingerprints, they can be covert. Thus, those interested in counterfeiting many not even realize that they need to try to duplicate this feature. Also, the fingerprints are easy to make but difficult to reproduce by those interested in counterfeiting.

Q: How does your work improve upon traditional security methods?

SS: Most methods are either much larger -- like the watermarks on money -- or based on electrical pulses or signals. We are providing something different, potentially more covert and also something that could be evaluated at multiple points along the production pathway.

Q: How have your connections with IN3 benefited you and your work?

SS: The work with IN3 is really just getting started, but the process of writing the proposal brought my research group in contact with professor David Crandall's group in computer science. That connection is really giving us new ways of thinking about how to authenticate our nanoscale fingerprints, especially when we might have very large data sets of them.

Also, IN3 is very interested in building connections with Indiana's industry, and I would love to see our invention be translated beyond the laboratory. I believe IN3 will be critical to that goal being met.

Q: How was the trusted microelectronics project with IN3 initiated?

SS: The student who initiated this project was Alison Smith, a Ph.D. student sponsored by NSWC Crane. The project was inspired by her appointment there and Crane's interest in secured electronics for military applications. She was recently recognized with a Service to America Award for this work.

Q: What might be the end result when your work is widely adopted? How will society -- commercial, industrial, military, private individuals -- benefit?

SS: If it is widely adopted, components in electronics may be authenticated using our technology. This could mean more-reliable electronic devices that don't fail because of a cheaper component being put into the device by a counterfeiter. This technology may also find its way into creating nanofingerprints on the capsules of drugs, making sure that a person's medicine is really what it is supposed to be. There are many sectors where it potentially might be used.

A video about Skrabalak’s work, produced by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, is available online.

IN3 encourages Indiana University innovators and researchers who have ideas, research or projects that fit the focus areas of electro-optics, hypersonics, trusted microelectronics and target machine learning to make contact via innovations@in3indiana.com.