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From aircraft engineer to FBI suspect

Plasma physicist falls foul of US export controls.

On his return from a trip to China on 26 May, J. Reece Roth, an emeritus professor of electrical engineering at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, was greeted at the airport by agents from the Customs Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The authorities photocopied the contents of his wallet and seized his laptop, he says. Earlier that day, they had searched his office and laboratory, and carried away hard drives and notebooks.

As Nature went to press, Roth had yet to be charged with a crime. “I'm still not sure what I'm being accused of,” he says. “This is an orwellian experience.” Search warrants seen by Nature for Roth's office, laboratory and computer indicate that he is suspected of violating the Armed Export Control Act, a law that prohibits the transfer of military technologies to foreign countries or nationals.

J. Reece Roth's (below, inset) work with a Chinese student, to develop a drag-reducing technology for unmanned planes, has sparked an inquiry. Credit: J. R. ROTH

Roth came to the University of Tennessee in 1978, where he developed a technique for creating a type of ionized gas, or plasma, in air at room temperature. Since 1994, he has been experimenting with using the plasma to control the flight of aircraft. By ionizing air as it travelled around a wing's surface, Roth created a plasma that could reduce drag dramatically (pictured above); the technique could allow airplanes to take off and land at steeper angles and on shorter runways.

In 2000, Roth's work won him a three-year grant of about $500,000 from the Air Force. The technology has also been licensed in part to Atmospheric Glow Technologies (AGT), a small Knoxville firm. In June 2005, AGT received a $750,000 Air Force contract to develop the plasma for use in unmanned aerial vehicles. Then AGT gave Roth a subcontract to further develop his ideas.

Foreign affairs

Roth arranged to work with a Chinese graduate student who had helped him with earlier research, and contends that officials at the University, AGT executives and Air Force administrators were all aware of the collaboration. “Everybody knew that a Chinese student would be involved, and nobody raised a red flag,” he says. But when, in early May, a newly hired contract manager at the university became aware of the situation, she apparently notified the authorities.

The concerns of the law-enforcement officials were exacerbated, it seems, when Roth travelled to the Research Institute of Tsinghua University in Shenzhen and Fudan University in Shanghai in May, to give lectures and assist the translation of a textbook he had authored. Roth says he discussed the plasma technology generally, but didn't mention specific work being carried out by AGT. Everything in his lectures is available through the openly accessible literature, he claims.

Credit: USAF/GETTY IMAGES

A price to pay

“It never occurred to me that a small research contract could trump the bedrock policy of non-discrimination.”

FBI officials declined to comment on the ongoing investigation but Tom Reddoch, director of AGT, confirms that the company has been cooperating with the authorities. Sue Murphy, a spokeswoman for the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright–Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, says they too have been contacted. Murphy says that: “There's no reason to suspect any release of Air Force sensitive material.”

So why is Roth being investigated? The Armed Export Control Act requires most researchers undertaking military-funded applied studies to follow a set of rules known as the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, explains Peter Lichtenbaum. Lichtenbaum previously ran export controls at the US Commerce Department, and is now a partner at Steptoe & Johnson, a law firm based in Washington DC. “With very narrow exceptions, any release of military technology to a foreign national would require a licence.” Licences for cooperation with Chinese nationals are particularly difficult to get, as they require a special presidential waiver.

It is possible that Roth's original plasma research would not have been subject to export controls, but once he was working under contract with AGT to develop specific military applications, he may have required a licence and waiver to work with his Chinese graduate student. The maximum penalty for breaching such regulations is a $1-million fine and up to ten years in prison. But Lichtenbaum says that if charged, tried and convicted, Roth would probably face a fine of up to $500,000.

This is not the first time that university researchers have come up against US arms export regulations. In 2003, NASA-funded astrophysicists were barred from working on Double Star, a Chinese satellite designed to explore the interaction of the solar wind with Earth's magnetosphere (see Nature 426, 375; 200310.1038/426375b). But it's rare, says Robert Hardy, of the Council of Government Relations, a Washington-based organization representing research universities. “We are not aware of very many cases where a situation like this has arisen.”

Roth maintains that he did not believe such restrictions would apply at his university, which encourages cooperation with foreign researchers. “It never occurred to me that a small research contract could trump the bedrock policy of non-discrimination,” he says. He hopes the affair can be resolved quickly, saying the seizure of lab materials has brought his research to a halt. “This whole thing has not helped me, it has not helped the university,” he says. “And it has probably not helped this country, either.”

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University of Tennessee's Plasma Industrial Engineering Group

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Brumfiel, G. From aircraft engineer to FBI suspect. Nature 442, 232 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1038/442232a

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