New marking technique could halt counterfeit goods

29 Jan 2018


Researchers at the University of Copenhagen have developed the world's most secure marking system for combatting pirated goods including pirated pharmaceuticals, foodstuffs, designer merchandise and artwork. The system could be on the market in a year and because the markings are random, it cannot be hacked. The results have just been published in Science Advances, a scientific journal.

Companies around the world consistently suffer significant economic losses due to counterfeited goods made by pirate manufacturers for whom international patents are of no concern. Nor do these pirates lose sleep over placing people's lives at risk when, for example, they sell dangerous and counterfeit medications online.

However, tough times are on the horizon for pirates according to four researchers from the University of Copenhagen's Nano Science Center. They have developed a system that head of research and associate professor Thomas Just Sørensen of the University of Copenhagen's Department of Chemistry calls "the safest in the world" when it comes to clamping down on all types of pirate manufacturing: "The system, which deploys three rare earths among other things, is based on randomness, which makes it unable to be hacked or tampered with", says one of the researchers Thomas Just Sørensen: "As soon as a customer asks that an authorized dealer checks up on a piece of merchandise that was meant to be marked using the system, an expensive wrist watch for example, the dealer can access a manufacturer database to check its authenticity."

The probability of two products having the same 'fingerprints' - the same digital key - is so minuscule, that in practice, it can only be described as non-existent," explains Sørensen. "It corresponds to a one out of an enormous number composed of a 6 followed by 104 zeros."

Can be on the market in a year
The University of Copenhagen has taken out a patent on the marking system and it is expected to be on the market in roughly a year. Researchers are currently fine-tuning scanning solutions to ready the system for manufacturers. According to Thomas Just Sørensen: "We estimate that it will take approximately one year, at which point we will be very close to being able to put a commercial version on the market."

Researchers estimate that the cost of marking products will be modest, probably not much more than one Danish krone. Additional expenses from the data systems have yet to be fully estimated.

How the marking system works
How do you create a marking code based on randomness? You take a large bucket of sand and divide it into three smaller tubs. Thereafter, one adds three rare earths to each of the three tubs - europium, terbium and dysprosium - each of which lights up when exposed to a specific wavelength of light. The three small tubs of sand receive an appropriate dosing of a single rare earth, which then gets absorbed into the surface of each grain of sand. Thereafter, the coloured grains of sand from each of the three tubs are poured back into the single large bucket and thoroughly mixed. Marking a product takes place as follows:

A piece of 'tape' pulls thousands of coloured grains of sand out of the bucket and is then attached to the product. The unique pattern created by the coloured grains of sand can be attached to products in a number of ways. The pattern, measuring only a few millimeters, can be impregnated into leather, embedded into glass or milled into metal. Because the grains of sand are so small, they cannot be removed individually and rearranged into another puzzle. As soon as the manufacturer equips an item with the randomly generated fingerprint, the imprint is photographed at individual wavelengths, each of which gets the europium, terbium and dysprosium to light up. The three pictures are then combined into a single image, which is stored in a manufacturer database. When a luxury watch retailer receives an inquiry from a customer who would like to know whether a used watch that they are interested in is genuine or not, the watch fingerprint is scanned. The scanned image is compared with the watch manufacturer's database and if there is not a 100 percent match, the merchandise is a counterfeit.

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