2nd November 2012, 8:53am
University collaboration recognised for its role in fighting organised crime
Dr Tim Wilkinson, Dr Mark Baron and Awards judge Andrew Atherton A partnership which is combating fuel smugglers and saving governments billions of pounds in lost revenue has been shortlisted for a prestigious award.

The University of Lincoln and fuel marking company Decipher are partners in a project that allows for hand-held, on-site testing of fuels in order to detect fuel fraud.

The core technology the system is based upon was developed and patented in the University’s forensic laboratories. It is now licensed to DeCipher to use in its fuel marking systems.

This groundbreaking collaboration between industry and academia, responding to a critical market demand in creating an effective system to combat the global issue of fuel fraud, is one of three in with a chance of receiving a Lord Stafford Award for innovation. The awards recognise, showcase and reward the best in collaboration between businesses and universities across the Midlands.

Governments often tax or subsidise fuel products to generate revenues, or stimulate their economies and both of these practices are subject to fraud. Fuel marking has been shown to be effective in controlling illegal activity. DeCipher, with the University of Lincoln, has developed SERS (Surface Enhanced Raman Scattering) as its lead technology for measuring markers in fuel to identify and control malpractice. SERS instruments are portable and give high specificity for fuel markers and the analysis is quick, clear and decisive. This has significant advantages over existing systems.

The technology is based on detection and measuring the markers with lasers. The secret of the project’s success is in linking these molecules to nano-particles to get a 10-100 million times increase in sensitivity. The stability of the nano-particle (or colloid), which was developed at the University of Lincoln, is critical to the process.

Dr Mark Baron, from the University’s School of Life Sciences, said: “SERS instruments are portable and give high specificity for fuel markers. The analysis is quick, clear and decisive giving significant advantages over existing systems. Developing markers that work well in fuel and give a strong analytical SERS signal has been an immense challenge. There is a need to be able to mark the fuel so that the marker cannot be detected by the criminals. In addition, at Lincoln we are working to determine what happens to the fuels if attempts are made to remove the marker as well as to develop alternative methods of analysis to back the SERS data in court.”

DeCipher has been awarded a number of contracts in countries around the world, including in South America and Asia.

Dr Baron, who also works on a consultancy basis for DeCipher, added: “In terms of innovation this project is brilliant because it’s the first ever commercial application of SERS. One of the problems previously has been the reliability of colloids but we have managed to create one that has the same behaviour from batch to batch. Not only has the investment enabled a small business to develop and employ new scientists, it’s also having a major global impact on addressing organised crime and will save governments billions of pounds in lost revenue. Its impact will be felt locally, nationally and internationally.”

As well as preventing gangs from stealing many hundreds of million of pounds sterling, the projects also generate employment. DeCipher’s HQ employs some 15 people and is funding two PhD posts at the University. An additional 200 people are employed in the field to run the operations.

Dr Tim Wilkinson, from DeCipher, said: “Innovation is needed to fight organised crime and that innovation is often generated by universities. I am proud that in DeCipher we are successfully fighting crime based on the University of Lincoln’s ingenuity. We are also not resting and look forward to the next generation of technology to keep us ahead. In DeCipher we lead with our motto that as far as we are concerned ‘crime will not pay’.”

Revenue generated through the licence and partnership has been used by the University to fund a joint venture into how colloid technology can be used in other areas. The colloid used by DeCipher holds significant promise for potential improved medical diagnostics and in the creation of low cost microbial agents.

Lord Stafford, Awards Patron, said: “The collaboration between the University of Lincoln and DeCipher on what could be an internationally significant project is what the Lord Stafford Awards are all about. By taking what is an entrepreneurial idea with potentially huge benefits and working with the university to apply the know-how, we can see the very essence of collaboration between academia and business.”

The awards ceremony will take place at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry on 15th November.
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