Director of small innovative enterprises at St Petersburg University on how laser chemistry helps find forgeries among documents

Small innovative enterprises run by the University are the place where the energy of theoretical knowledge is put into practice. This is where patents that are intended to go outside the scientific laboratory and take the form of practical, socially relevant technology are created. Vladimir Kochemirovskii is Director of the Small Innovative Enterprises of St Petersburg University "Laser Chemistry" and "Non-Local Plasma Technologies". We spoke to him to find out how scientific developments help determine the authenticity of documents and, for example, locate low-quality scrap metal.

Can you please tell us how the businesses you run today were born?

It all started when we won an internal grant of our University in the field of our laser chemistry laboratory. At that time, the Vice-Rector for Research said that this topic could be developed in a more focused way and recommended that we set up a small innovative enterprise in laser chemistry at the University, which we did. At that time, we began our journey of turning laser deposition projects into a saleable product. However, in the course of the work, we abandoned this very topic and took up more applied areas. One of them still supports us very actively. This is a technology for determining the age of the signature on documents. With its help, we made a name for ourselves in the country and today we do 50 such examinations a year. We could do more, but the company’s capacity does not yet make it possible for us to do so — today there are more orders than specialists.

What challenges did you face in setting up the small innovative enterprises?

It is important to understand that historically the University has always focused primarily on fundamental research: it was not originally intended to create products for practical application. To do this, institutes specialising in engineering were opened in the country, and the University was preparing personnel specifically for fundamental research. It happened that there were no engineers, production, and economic specialists in this field, so we had to go the hard way: gain the necessary experience on our own to make a real working product out of fundamental development.

Tell us about your most successful inventions.

Today we are working in two areas. The first one deals with determining the age of the documents, which I have already mentioned. These developments began when we were approached by friends-lawyers with the question: ‘We have documents from Moscow archives on the Chernobyl zone with a list of liquidators of the disaster. There is a suspicion that two persons from Krasnoyarsk Krai had "joined it" much later and now illegally receive their benefits. Can you chemically analyse these registers and recognise who was included there and when?’

I got my colleagues in the department involved, and we brainstormed and proposed a new way to analyse the ink. We tried it and it worked. Expert analysis was carried out and we managed to prove that two of the records in the documents were indeed from a later period: they were created after the 2000s. In other words, the two citizens were in fact illegally receiving payments for the liquidators of the Chernobyl disaster.

After this, a proposal emerged to set up a laboratory for such work, because, as it turned out, this topic is not only in demand in Russia. Document forgery is one of the most acute problems in forensics and forensic examinations. Around the world, thousands of documents are forged every year. We started taking the first examinations, slowly improving our methodology, and developing.

Today, the Small Innovative Enterprise "Laser Chemistry" is the owner of two certified methods for determining the age of a signature. Our company is also the only one in the country that does this professionally and has such international credibility. The results of our work are published in first quartile European scientific journals. In the most complicated cases, we are contacted, not only for expertise but also for reviews of other people’s expertise. We receive many requests from arbitration and civil courts, the Ministry of the Internal Affairs, the Investigative Committee, and private individuals.

What is the second area?

Our second project also has the potential to be commercially viable. This project determines the level of contamination of scrap metal. It is not uncommon for scrap metal suppliers to slip debris in to increase the total weight of the load and save money on the material. We have come up with a technology that will uncover this deception without unloading the wagon of scrap metal: it simply has to be put through a special frame.

The technology works on the principle of magnetochemistry: it involves a special circuit with a certain inductance and voltage frequency parameters. While entering the circuit, the wagon acts as a core. We can register these changes of coil parameters, form a graphic image, and calculate the ratio of magnetic and non-magnetic phases. Then, the wagon is weighed on a normal railway scale and the data obtained are compared with each other. We have a special calculation algorithm that enables us to find out how much metal is in the wagon and how much trash is in it.

What are you working on right now?

We are continuing to develop a method of determining the age of documents. Any document consists of paper, printed text, signatures, and seals. Today, we understand how to determine the age of handwritten inscriptions as well as seal imprints. However, the dating of the printed text is still an acute issue around the world with no solution yet. Admittedly, we have some good ideas on how to try and solve this issue.

We are also looking at ways to determine the age of the paper itself. It is good when we can see the age of the signature. However, a text is sometimes first printed for a document, a sheet of paper with that text is left lying around for several years, and only then is it signed. Or, on the contrary, often a blank sheet of paper with the signature was first stored in the archives and then several years later the text was printed on it. What is the date of the document creation in such a case? It is not clear. It is therefore very important for us to put together all the details: when the paper was created; when it was signed; when the text was printed; and when the seal was put.

The material was prepared with the participation of the students of St Petersburg University.