AS THOUSANDS of angry motorists in the UK have been questioning lately whether their clapped out cars were victims of contaminants in their petrol, York's Dr Tim Wilkinson must have found it quite an irony.

Tim, a former biology undergraduate at the University of York, went on to become the saviour of many Third World nations by using his unique counterfeiting tests to track down contaminants in fuel, thereby saving them millions of pounds.

It is a technique that has made Dr Wilkinson some powerful friends, but also some shady, even vicious enemies.

No matter. Tim, who celebrated his 60th birthday last Thursday, is made of tough stuff. You only had to see him at the back of line-out in staff-student rugby matches when he was a biology undergraduate at York to know that for him robust opposition is just part of a day's work.

After obtaining his degree in York and a PhD in biochemical engineering and microbiology from the University of London, Tim pursued a successful career as a biologist with senior technical and staff positions for Shell.

In 1992, he became managing director of Biocode, a buy-out from Shell Ventures UK, and set up operations on the campus of the University of York. The Biocode business was to supply proprietary anti-counterfeiting tests, based on the unique recognition of an antigen by its corresponding antibody.

In 2003, Biocode merged with a Dallas-based company to form Authentix - the global leader in product authenticationwhich employs around 35 staff at its premises at Chessingham Park, Dunnington. Since then, Tim's activities as director, international commerce, at Authentix appear to have gone from strength to strength.

The company retains links with the university, not least through a relationship with the Department of Chemistry, which won the Best Knowledge Transfer Partnership Programme Award, sponsored by the Department of Trade and Industry last year. The research was focused on developing nanotechnology-based applications to prevent fuel smuggling and adulteration The beauty of the Authentix system is that its invisible markers can be added to potentially counterfeited products and then identified at any point along the supply chain by a quick and simple-to-use test.

These markers can, for example, be added to fuels in a ratio as high as 100 parts per billion. Where their presence is not detected in later tests, the fuel tested is clearly smuggled. Alternatively, if fuels are being adulterated with cheaper products, then the marker can be added to the adulterant and subsequently identified in fuels to which they have been added. Pirates beware!

Already millions of dollars have been saved by governments in Africa, Thailand and Guyana through the use of the Authentix test to spot fuel frauds and adulteration. More recently, Dr Wilkinson, whose nicknane is 'Fuel Daddy', helped land a substantial contract for Authentix to set up a major operation with the Indian government to stop fuel adulteration.

India subsidises the price of kerosene for the poor to use for cooking and heating. Unfortunately, much of this subsidised oil is stolen and diverted for use in auto fuels, giving annual loses estimated as high as US$5 billion.

As you can imagine, not everyone is keen to see Tim and his team being successful - and that is probably where his earlier sporting resilience and prowess now plays an important part.

Already around 2,000 field officers of public sector oil marketing companies have been trained to operate the Authentix test and some 10,000 retail outlets checked. These numbers will increase significantly as the programme develops.

While Tim is no stranger to the Asian continent, he was the first boy of his family not to be born in India for a number of generations.

His father was selling kerosene in Malaysia for Shell in the 1920s and now his son, Toby, is the third generation Wilkinson to be working in the oil industry in the Far East.

So contemplating the marking of 12 billion litres of Indian kerosene each year looks like a pretty straightforward job in the life of Tim Wilkinson - just another biology graduate of 40 years ago from the University of York!

Reflecting on what has happened over those years, he told me: 'York has been part of my life from my university education (where I also met my wife Pauline), to the welcome and help I received when we formed Biocode (now Authentix) on the university campus.

"I am proud to have been associated with York. York should be proud to have spawned a company which now employs 70 people and over 1,000 contract staff worldwide as well as saving governments and their people, as well as companies, billions of dollars in revenues that would have been lost to corruption."

Predictably, Dr Tim and Authentix now have their sights set on other markets and opportunities for their unique markers.

Careers for biology graduates are not always what you might expect.

Watch this space!