Composite and sensor technology combine to create shipping containers that can warn of security breaches
They don’t look like much. Big and rectangular, dinged at the corners and bespeckled with rust, oversized shipping or cargo containers are the building blocks of international commerce. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), almost 7 million cargo containers are off-loaded at American seaports annually. But their ubiquitous use in the supply chain also makes them a security risk.
On Capitol Hill last year, DHS Under Secretary Jay Cohen testified before a Congressional subcommittee that “one of the most significant potential terrorist threats to the nation is the vast number of shipping containers that flow through our borders each year, most of which enter without physical inspection.”
For that reason, DHS has made port security a top priority, funding a variety of technologies and initiatives intended to increase cargo handlers’ ability to monitor the thousands of shipping containers that enter U.S. ports daily.
One technology being investigated taps into the University of Maine’s considerable resources and expertise in the areas of composites and sensor technologies to develop a new kind of container — one that can tell its handlers when it has been tampered with.
UMaine graduate student Anthony Viselli and Advanced Engineered Wood Composites (AEWC) Center Director Habib Dagher spearhead the research at UMaine, being done in partnership with Maine Secure Composites LLC.
Maine Secure Composites, based at the Target Technology Incubator, focuses on the development of maritime container construction using composite materials for homeland security, international shipping and the U.S. military. In 2005, Maine Secure Composites, led by Fred and Cynthia Smith from Angel Secure Networks LLC, and Professor Dagher from AEWC, received a DHS Advanced Research Program Agency contract to develop a composite anti-tamper container with embedded sensors.
With the help of AEWC’s research personnel, equipment and testing services, it was one of six organizations to receive DHS awards. Applications for the highly competitive awards came from more than 100 research institutions nationwide, Viselli says.
“The purpose of the project was to develop a container that could detect intrusions on all six faces,” says Viselli. “What we developed is a container that utilizes composite panels for security, but can also be fully integrated into the existing manufacturing and shipping infrastructures to promote acceptance by the industry.”
Viselli was a junior in civil engineering when he was hired as a research assistant at the AEWC Center and began work on development of the composite containers. He managed a team of other student engineers who developed a half-scale model that helped earn Maine Secure Composites DHS funding for a second phase.
When he completed his undergraduate degree, Viselli chose to stay at UMaine to continue the tamper-resistant containers project and work toward a master’s degree in civil engineering. Dagher sees the combination of research and academic experience that projects like this provide as a true strength of UMaine.
“This project illustrates how research, education and economic development are linked,” says Dagher. “By working for Maine Secure Composites, Anthony and the other students involved not only received a salary and help toward their tuition, they also had the opportunity to learn about new technologies, and to apply their skills in engineering and science that they learned in the classroom.”
The Maine Secure Composites/ UMaine design team is now developing a pilot production line for the containers to demonstrate how the technologies can be incorporated into a manufacturing process capable of quickly producing multiple units.
Unlike other composite container products that have proved to be largely unsuccessful in the field, UMaine’s design promises to be user-friendly at multiple levels. The research team has focused considerable time and energy on creating a prototype that integrates easily into existing infrastructure for container manufacturing and use.
“As evidenced by Senator (Susan) Collins’ leadership in developing the Port Security Act, there is a national need to do more to enhance port security, with real concerns about the possibility of cargo coming into the U.S. that contain weapons, bombs or hazardous materials,” Dagher says. “In this project, we need to address the issue of national security, but we also need to make sure that what we do doesn’t interfere with the flow of commerce. In addition, we wanted to provide incentives that would help to ensure that the container manufacturing industry would adopt the new design.”
By creating the new patented design, manufacturers could begin to utilize existing manufacturing lines without any costly equipment or changes in production techniques. Recent tests of the first full-scale composite container at an independent International Standards Organization (ISO) certification facility in New Jersey showed that the new design will meet all of the industry’s strength requirements.
In addition, the new design is more durable and requires less maintenance than steel, according to Viselli and Dagher.
“In terms of industry acceptance of the anti-tamper container, our composite container is more resistant to corrosion, and doesn’t need as much painting and other maintenance like steel. Another advantage is the reduction in self-weight,” says Viselli. “The composite components make the containers 15–20 percent lighter than existing steel containers, which helps to offset the initially higher costs of using composites. Less weight means less fuel costs or increased payload.”
Since the new containers can be manufactured to the same design standards as traditional steel, they can be packed, stacked and shipped like any others on the market, maintaining a constant flow of commerce.
Another advantage of the new container is its adaptability. The composite panels are designed in such a way so that they can “host” a wide variety of sensor systems already on the market. Embedded sensors in future containers could not only help maintain port security, they could monitor environmental conditions inside the container or detect damage to the contents during shipping.
Once completed, the pilot production line will provide Maine Secure Composites, UMaine and DHS with several full-scale containers for field-testing.
“The economic potential of this project is really exciting,” Viselli says. “This is a great opportunity to create new manufacturing/R&D jobs while helping meet the challenges of securing our nation’s ports.”
January – February 2008
Image Description: Anthony Viselli