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Nanorods take down counterfeiters
IBM scientists create nano-sized patterns to thwart forgeries

Last year, Operation Holiday Hoax II by the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement unit netted 327,000 counterfeit items worth about $76.8 million1. The six-week sting that ended in mid-December seized all types of counterfeit goods including handbags, technology products and wallets.

The holiday season is prime time for counterfeiters looking to lure last-minute holiday shoppers with unbelievable deals, particularly on luxury goods. Although advances in technology for identifying authentic products, such as 3D holograms and electronic chips, have made it easier to identify fraudulent products, counterfeiters continue to keep pace, often by reverse engineering the theft-prevention techniques so their knock-off goods appear to be real.

IBM Research scientists in Zurich, however, have devised a new way to combat counterfeiting by bringing the technology to an entirely different scale — nano.

Earlier this year IBM scientists published a paper with the renowned university ETH Zurich demonstrating how they could precisely position gold nanorods, which measure 25 by 80 nanometers, on a surface using a simple printing process. As a point of comparison, the head of a pin is about 1 million nanometers wide.

In the demonstration they recreated the famous German Ampelmännchen®, which is known to Berliners and tourists alike, as it is featured on all crosswalk lights to help pedestrians cross the street. Except this version of the Ampelmännchen® was roughly 2,500 times smaller.

Ampelmannchen Scientists from IBM Research and ETH Zurich, arranged gold nanorods to display the STOP Ampelmann, which is 50 μm × 60 μm in size

IBM scientist Dr. Heiko Wolf explains: "We used the surface tension of water and a nano-sized template to orient the nanorods, which can then be printed on any surface using a nanoprinting process — similar to an old letterpress machine. We can then create any pattern, such as a corporate logo or a serial number, at the nanoscale to prevent counterfeiting." Unlike other technologies, it's impossible to reverse engineer.

IBM scientists have also patented a related nano-patterning technique using fluorescent spheres made of polystyrene, the same material used in coffee cups and packaging materials.

Heiko explains, "In addition to using nanorods, we can also create patterns using fluorescent spheres which emit red, green and blue light. What makes this particularly interesting is that they add another level of security, in that the order of the colors in which they arrange themselves is completely random. So not even I could replicate the pattern. We call it a physically unclonable function or PUF."

Both techniques can be used in conjunction to prevent the forgery of any high-end product, including diamonds, watches, famous works of art or even passports or priceless documents. Once the nanopattern is applied to a product or good, it can be viewed under an optical microscope to verify its authenticity.

IBM scientists are currently looking for opportunities to test the technique and believe it can be readily available in the consumer market within the next five years.

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Meet the researchers

  • Heiko Wolf portrait image

    Heiko Wolf

    Research Staff Member,
    IBM Research - Zurich


1Knockoff: The Deadly Trade in Counterfeit Goods

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