Fake goods have become a huge problem in recent years but scientists may have a solution that could make counterfeiting a thing of the past using quantum technology.
The researchers at Lancaster University’s tech start-up Quantum Base have come up with a graphene-based identity tag that is completely unique and can be scanned using a smartphone.
According to research from the Centre for Economic and Business Research, fake goods cost the UK economy £17.3 billion and affected 72,000 British jobs in 2016.
But the researchers, who are showcasing their work at the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition, are confident their technology could eliminate counterfeiting in the foreseeable future.
“The most exciting thing about this is it empowers the end-user,” said Professor Robert Young, lead scientist at Quantum Base.
“So any person with a smartphone can verify any tag which has been labelled with our technology and verify whether it is genuine or not.”
So what makes this tag unique and different from existing authenticity identifiers such as holograms, security inks and chemical or physical markers such as taggants?
The answer lies in a special type of graphene that was invented by two scientists at the University of Manchester who won the the Nobel Prize in 2010 for their pioneering work.
This graphene-based material is only one-atom thick – hence even the tiniest imperfections, caused by the smallest of changes in the structure of an atom, can be identified. It also makes replicating the tag hard for fraudsters, if not impossible.
“Everything is unique at the atomic scale,” explained Prof Young. “These materials come with strange quantum properties and their properties change if you move a single atom.
“It is these changes that we are measuring. The properties of the materials are sensitive to small scale imperfections.
“There is nothing more unique and there is no level below atoms.”
This unique tag, created by Quantum Base, comes with a track-and-trace ability and, more importantly, can be turned off at any point if the product is reported lost or stolen.
The scientists say these nano-scale tags can also be made to be edible and coated onto medicines, potentially eliminating the problem of counterfeit pills and save human lives in the process.
They could also be used in the Internet of Things devices to help consumers identify the real goods from their fake counterparts.
“The ability to be able to identify something – to know that something is what they say it is – is incredibly important,” said Prof Young.
“For example, IoT devices, where we are sharing secure information, can raise questions like ‘is this smart smoke alarm a genuine device or is it sharing my emails and giving out information to a nefarious party?’
“As we increasingly rely on digital identities, the value of these identities increases – which is why we want to make the identification process as unique as possible.”
The patented technology is expected to be available to the public next year.
The research is published in the journal Condensed Matter.