Dawes Centre for Future Crime at UCL


Onsite counterfeit detection system for agrochemicals

19 May 2021

Research summary

This project follows a Dawes Centre-funded scoping study on current and future trends in the counterfeiting of chemical products, and the technologies that might be used to identify these. This was motivated by reports that counterfeiters have become increasingly proficient at producing authentic-looking products and/or packaging, honing their methods to the point where their products pass visual inspection – the first line of defence. Thus, there is a growing requirement for fast analytical methods to test the chemical composition of the contents of such products where traditional product protection methods or track-and-trace do not exist or are ineffective. In particular, the threat of counterfeit agrochemicals such as counterfeit pesticides was discussed as a neglected area – despite having potential widespread negative impacts in terms of public health and environmental contamination as well as economic losses.

The aim of this new project is to carry out a laboratory-based investigation into suitable technologies that could fit into a miniaturised system to identify counterfeit agrochemicals. Such technologies do not exist. Technologies that could be applied at the point of distribution or application would be targeted and concepts for end-user devices investigated. To achieve this aim there are three objectives:

  • Understand the problem through discussion with stakeholders taking special note of the optimum point for intervention
  • Develop laboratory facilities for optical and ionising radiation studies of genuine and counterfeit samples so that suitable ‘fingerprints’ can be obtained in reasonable timeframes
  • Develop ideas for miniaturisation of technology whose output can be interpreted easily from in-field measurements.

Currently, the longer-term view is to develop a long “pole” shaped, battery-operated detector system that can be inserted into a drum of liquid or powder pesticide to carry out the analysis in situ. The analysis would identify the sample by comparison to database spectra to provide a quick response confirming its identity (in the form of a smartphone app). Using this technology will enable regular updates to the reference database to be made as manufacturers modify products or release new ones, without recalibration of the in-field instrumentation. The
information on any negative responses could also be registered such that the appropriate authorities would be updated on incidences of counterfeit agrochemicals, aiding them in mapping their spread and hence potentially enabling them to work back to a suspect supplier.

Lead Investigator(s)

Dr Robert Moss  - UCL Medical Physics

Professor Robert Speller  - UCL Medical Physics

Research Assistant(s):Dr J.C. Khong  - UCL Medical Physics
For information about this project contact

Dr Robert Moss