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
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
"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
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
"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
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."
by David Munson
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