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Canadian Students Made This Neat Nanotech Ink to Thwart Counterfeiters

A smartphone camera's flash and some fancy processing algorithms are all that's needed to verify the authenticity of whatever the ink has been applied to.

A trio of students out of the University of Waterloo have harnessed the power of nanotechnology to create a new approach to anti-counterfeiting ink.

The ink is pretty much invisible to the naked eye, which isn't new, but blast it with a pulse from a smartphone camera's flash, run the resulting image through some fancy processing algorithms, and the result is a unique numerical sequence that can verify the authenticity of whatever product it's been applied to.


Their company is named Arylla (formerly Black Box Technologies), and was founded by Ben Rasera, Graham Thomas, and Perry Everett—all final year students in Waterloo's nanotechnology engineering program. They recently won $25k in funding from something called the Velocity Fund.

"In a nutshell, we are making inks that have unique optical signatures that can be verified using a smartphone," Everett said in a phone interview. The ink can be printed on pretty much anything, from a computer chip to something organic, like an apple (although who counterfeits an apple?). They're focusing on electronics for now.

"The interaction between the light and the nano material, […] that interaction is something the camera registers, and the algorithm extracts," Everett said.

"It's a fairly new material as far as nanotechnology goes," Everett said, but declined to name what, specifically, they were working with—only that it was a modified version of a material that is relatively new. "The most interesting aspect of the material is you can basically tune the properties in order to act like a barcode. So when I say optical signature what I'm talking about is a numerical sequence, and that sequence is embedded in the nanomaterial," he explained.

The barcode is based on both the physical pattern of the application of the ink itself, and the colours that are reflected when the flash hits the nanomaterial.


"The interaction between the light and the nano material, […] that interaction is something the camera registers, and the algorithm extracts," Everett said.

It's that high-intensity burst coupled with the algorithms that does all the work; with light alone, you wouldn't see much. They think they can theoretically print hundreds of thousands of unique combinations, but are still testing the upper boundary of what's possible.

Of course, using invisible inks as a means of thwarting counterfeiters isn't novel, nor are the imaging algorithms being used. But what is novel is how all of these things have been tweaked in such a way that the veracity of an object can be identified with nothing more than an app and a smartphone camera's flash.

Rasera says they hope to have a product to market within 18 months, and prototypes ready within five, in time to beta test with distributors this winter. So far, the company has been talking to distributors of HP and Cisco products. Because some data center operators use a combination of licensed and unlicensed hardware, the fear is that inauthentic products could run the risk of damaging legitimate components, and distributors need a way to tell components apart.

Couldn't someone just counterfeit the anti-counterfeiting ink? According to Rasera, it would be "virtually possible to reverse engineer" for variety of reasons—the proprietary nature of the ink included. And even if someone did, it would probably cost them more to figure a way around the anti-counterfeiting measure than to just alter their counterfeiting technique if they're found out.