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Invisible Ink for the Information Age Could Kill Counterfeiting, QR Codes

Invisible Ink for the Information Age Could Kill Counterfeiting, QR Codes

Every now and again I'll come across a QR code, typically in an ad targeted at someone in my general demographic but clearly created by someone that just has no idea about anything. Advertising for e-cigarettes and bad music festivals seem like probable domains for this DOA technology. QR codes just never made a very good argument for their own existence, with the code's destinations more often than not being some bit of lame marketing or product information. Consumers are more likely to be blocking ads than installing some new thing on their phone/browser so that they can be marketed to in a new way. Some of us also correctly noted that technology was moving much too fast for the codes to matter; someday soon we'll be able to glean information from a physical thing via a mere embedded particle, invisible to all but your phone. 
That day is coming very soon, and a paper out today in Nature Materials describes a new sort of embedded particle that can not only encode very large amounts of information (for a particle) but can also sense its environment. The invisible-to-the-naked eye particles come courtesy of a team of chemical engineers at MIT (and funded in part by the U.S. Air Force), and the immediate suggested use for them is authentication. Counterfeit goods are a big problem across the globe, from electronics to food to drugs, and invisible particles have the potential to act as microscopic certificates of authenticity. 
Here's how it works: the particles are made from "rare earth upconverting nanocrystals," and are additionally doped with combinations of the elements ytterbium, gadolinium, erbium, and thulium. These elements, when exposed to infrared light, glow visibly in different combinations of colors, which appear as different arrangements of stripes. This might not seem like much encoding capacity, but figure six stripes on a particle, each one of those stripes being a color from the visible spectrum of light. From that, you get a million different possible combinations, and adding even more possible encodings is just a matter of using more than one particle per material. 
"It's really a massive encoding capacity," said MIT postdoc Paul Bisso, who began the project. "You can apply different combinations of 10 particles to products from now until long past our time and you'll never get the same combination."
What makes the particles especially interesting is that they could be incorporated into most any material imaginable: money, 3-D printed objects, paint. "The ability to tailor the tag's material properties without impacting the coding strategy is really powerful," Bisso said. "What separates our system from other anti-counterfeiting technologies is this ability to rapidly and inexpensively tailor material properties to meet the needs of very different and challenging requirements, without impacting smartphone readout or requiring a complete redesign of the system."
What's more, all it takes to make the particles smart-phone readable is a laser pointer. Next up: an app, and just maybe, the end of fake goods. 
But that's not the end of it. "This technology could encode all sorts of information," Patrick Doyle, the study's lead author, told me Sunday. "In the current form shown in the manuscript, each particle has an optical 'identity,' which can be translated to information (e.g. a word, phrase, numbers) via a lookup table. Combinations of particles could lead to sentences or URLs etc. Also, since this is a lithographic technique, we could directly write out text on a particle and forgo a lookup table. The text would be hidden until the correct wavelength of light (near infrared) is shown on it." So: invisible digital ink.
TOPICS: materials scienceparticlescounterfeitdiscoveries


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