Professor Máire O’Neill is currently Director of Research for Data Security Systems at the Centre for Secure Information Technologies (CSIT)
Professor Máire O’Neill is currently Director of Research for Data Security Systems at the Centre for Secure Information Technologies (CSIT)

Máire O'Neill was still a PhD student when her research was first exploited commercially. Now, the one-time UK Female Inventor of the Year is regarded as one of Europe's leading cryptography experts.

Real pearls, unlike real diamonds, are often difficult to distinguish from fake ones. For pearl farmers in a Chinese region that produces some 95 per cent of the world's freshwater varieties, that is having serious economic consequences.

Máire and her cryptography research team at the Centre for Secure Information Technologies (CSIT) believe they may have come up with a novel answer to that problem. Their proposed solution is to use lightweight uncloneable technology with radio frequency identification (RFID) tags that could be embedded into each pearl to guarantee their authenticity.

This could be done by using a simple scanner to identify, without revealing, specific physical properties unique to each embedded tag, effectively giving each pearl its own unclonable fingerprint. "That is just one example of the research work we're involved in that addresses the security requirements of applications that can use RFID tags," says Maire.

"There is a rapidly growing need for this kind of technology because of the recent uptake of RFID in applications ranging from 'smart' passports to stock control in high street stores. RFID is also increasingly being used in new 'purseless' payment systems such as Transport for London's Oyster travel card and the latest generation of mobile phones.

"We have scored a number of notable firsts in this emerging field. These include the development of tiny circuits, half the size of anything else currently available. They are cheaper to produce, require much less power and provide significantly higher levels of data security. They also have the potential to offer much greater resistance to spoofing and skimming attacks.

The team is now exploring the possibility of setting up a spin-out company to exploit some of this work.

Máire knows all about the commercialisation of university research. She was a PhD student working with a Queen's University spin-out company, Amphion Semiconductor, when some of her first electronic designs were sold to a leading US semiconductor manufacturer.

A current holder of a prestigious five-year EPSRC Leadership Fellowship, she has received a number of major accolades for her work. These include the 2007 British Female Inventor of the Year title, awarded by the British Female Inventors & Innovators Network.

"Here at CSIT, we work closely with experienced engineers who help in the commercialisation of our research through the development of proof-of-concept designs and product prototypes that meet industry requirements.

"We are one of the only UK university groups specialising in cryptographic algorithms and architectures for system-on-chip and we are now regarded as European leaders in this field."

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