Researchers have invented a tiny, smartphone-readable particle to help authenticate currency, electronic parts and luxury goods.
The particles, which are invisible to the naked eye, contain coloured stripes of nanocrystals which glow brightly when lit up with near-infrared light.
They can easily be manufactured, integrated into a variety of materials and can withstand extreme temperatures, sun exposure and heavy wear
MIT chemical engineering professor Patrick Doyle says the particles could also be equipped with sensors to “record” their environments.
They might, for example, report back if a refrigerated vaccine has ever been exposed to temperatures too high or low.
The nanocrystals are explained in the journal Nature Materials in a paper by Doyle and Lincoln Laboratory technical staff member Albert Swiston.
Up to 5% all international trade involves counterfeit goods, according to a 2013 United Nations report. And the World Customs Organisation says 75% of the counterfeit products seized worldwide from 2008 to 2010 were manufactured in East Asia, primarily China
These illicit products, including electronics, automotive and aircraft parts, pharmaceuticals and food, can pose safety risks and cost governments and private companies hundreds of billions of dollars.
Many strategies have been developed to try to label legitimate products and prevent illegal trade but tags are often been too easy to fake.
The new particles are about 200 microns long and include several stripes of different coloured nanocrystals.
The crystals can be tuned to emit any colour in the visible spectrum and with particles which have six stripes, there are 1 million different possible colour combinations.
This capacity can be enhanced by tagging products with more than one particle. If researchers created a set of 1,000 unique particles and then tagged products with any 10 of those particles, there would more than enough to tag every grain of sand on Earth.
The microparticles could be dispersed within electronic parts or drug packaging during the manufacturing process, incorporated directly into 3-D-printed objects or printed onto currency.
They could also be incorporated into ink that artists could use to authenticate their artwork.
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