From polycyclic hydrocarbons to international fraud: technology developed at AUB receives patent and wins international award

​​​​​Sari Mounzer, communications@aub.edu.lb​

Smart Anti-Counterfeiting Optical System (SACOS) is a patented technology developed at AUB by Associate Professor Antoine Ghauch. The technology, that received the 2018 TechConnect Defense Innovation Award, can be used to improve homeland security by detecting fraud and authenticating official notes and documents such as banknotes, passports, visas, IDs, and checks. With the patent in hand, Ghauch is now seeking to commercialize the technology. “I already established connections with potential US companies and I am planning to visit some of them again this summer to present the patented technology," he explains. Among the potential end users of this technology are central banks, customs, forensic science laboratories, Interpol offices, border police, and manufacturers of luxury goods.

An idea and a team

Ghauch joined the Department of Chemistry at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) in 2006 with a PhD in analytical chemistry. He was searching for ways to determine, identify, and quantify organic contaminants, pollutants, and toxic molecules in water. At the time, Ghauch had the vision of developing a miniaturized portable technology capable of accurately detecting organic contaminants. The device that Ghauch had envisioned would allow scientists to test water samples in the field instead of having to take samples and return them to the lab.

In addition to the funding and support received from AUB to develop and promote this technology, Ghauch received a grant of $167,000 in 2012, through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), namely Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER 1-84). This grant supports significant researchers in developing countries. Ghauch and his US government partner, Dr. David L. Sedlak, an environmental engineer from UC Berkeley, and a team that included an electrical engineer, a software development engineer, and an optical-mechanical engineer, set to work on building the prototype. By 2014, the prototype had been developed. Shortly thereafter, Ghauch protected his idea through  a provisional patent filed in the US.

A change in plans

This technology, which is essentially a form of spectroscopy, measures room temperature phosphorescence on solid surfaces. It works by using a flash lamp  to irradiate molecules. The radiation is then cut off from the molecules which continue to emit light as they release the energy they gathered from the radiation. These photons emitted from the molecules are then captured through a specially designed optical fiber and relayed with a unique geometry to a detector that measures and quantifies the light before providing a visual reading of the signal. And since no two molecular compounds respond to being irradiated in the same manner, it becomes possible to identify the compound.

In the process of building and testing the technology, Ghauch and his team became aware of a startling reality. The shutter that would cut off radiation from the flash lamp had a response time that was simply too slow. The contaminants he was searching for had finished emitting light by the time the light from the flash had fully been cut by the shutter, so he was unable to capture a signal from the irradiated molecules. Ghauch and his team had successfully assembled a machine that was unable to fulfill its intended purpose.

Instead of succumbing to this obstacle, Ghauch sought to find an alternative use for this invention. It was seemingly accidental that Ghauch had the idea one day to test bank notes to see how they would respond. To his surprise, he discovered that this technology was able to identify and unlock many of the security features used to authenticate paper money, such as secure inks.  Ghauch's perseverance, innovative thinking, and ability to see opportunity in the face of obstacles ultimately led to the birth of SACOS and to the addition of a new field of investigation of forensic science at AUB.

The award and the patent

In 2018, the director of the Office of Grants and Contracts (OGC) at AUB, Dr. Fadia Homeidan, and FAS Dean Nadia El Cheikh supported Ghauch's plans to participate in the annual Defense TechConnect (DTC) Summit and Expo in Tampa, Florida for the purpose of finding investors interested in the technology. Within three weeks of submitting the abstract, SACOS was awarded the TechConnect Defense Innovation Award. With financial support from the Office of the Provost and the Dean's Office, Ghauch was able to miniaturize SACOS and make it portable in order to take the apparatus to the event for demonstration.

Meanwhile, he was working on the patent documentation with an attorney in the US and in close partnership with the OGC, specifically the Technology Transfer Unit. On April 24, 2019, he received a Notice of Allowance from the US Patent and Trademark Office. The patent he had worked so hard for would finally be issued. Ghauch also protected his invention internationally through the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). He has  been awarded in 2017 another PEER grant of $240,000 (PEER 5-18) to further refine SACOS.

He is currently in conversation with potential investors, with prominent US and US/Japanese companies showing interest in licensing and helping Ghauch design a commercialized model based on the prototype. He is also working with his team to procure more advanced electronic components  and optical sensors for SACOS to help fulfill his initial ambition of devising a technology capable of detecting organic contaminants in water.