Here’s how Sussex scientists are leading the fight against counterfeiting
University of Sussex
Aug 11 | 4 minutes read
Imitation may be a form of flattery, but not in the case of counterfeit goods. Thousands of businesses across the globe have fallen victim to manufacturers who produce their goods illegally, selling them at a lower price and inferior quality than the original product.
Examples abound. Amid the pandemic, counterfeit 3M face masks have been flooding the market, violating the company’s copyrights. Louis Vuitton reportedly spends over 17 million US dollars annually to combat counterfeiters.
Luxury group Kering, parent company to global fashion brands including Gucci and Saint Laurent, sued Alibaba in 2015 for making it possible for counterfeiters to sell their fake products on the platform.
With counterfeiting, companies may find that their reputation takes a hit, revenue nosedives, and can cost them thousands or millions to take legal action.
Counterfeiters affect other industries as well, including social media and e-commerce platforms where these products are being sold. E-commerce giants like Amazon and Alibaba are working hard to bring down counterfeit products on their platforms.
Researchers at the University of Sussex, however, are aiding the fight against counterfeiting.
They are currently creating an anti-counterfeiting ink that be triggered to emit a peculiar invisible electromagnetic fingerprint without and visible revealing features. While this ink is inexpensive to produce, it’s detection requires a very sophisticated approach, making it a prime technology that would interest brands — from luxury fashion houses to firearm manufacturers — looking to bolster the security of their goods.
A novel ink for authentication
Terahertz Ink (THink) uses a novel technique developed at the University of Sussex that can help organisations stay a step ahead of counterfeiters. Terahertz rays are a type of electromagnetic radiation. Because the technology is still in large part under development, its full potential has yet to be realised.
While THink looks like other inks and can be printed the same way, it is unique when examined with Terahertz technology. The ink can be placed everywhere; once placed, the point becomes a Terahertz emitter when appropriately excited.
This is uncommon as most sources of Terahertz do not function this way; this is a terahertz source that can be deployed in a liquid form, and on very large surfaces (a teapot, a table, a wall) with means no more complicated that standard ink printing. THink can be designed to provide different emissions, including ‘Dummy’ versions with no emission but a similar chemical composition and, most importantly, same visual appearance. This can be exploited to hide the information written with an emitting ink in a field of non-emitting ink.
Unlike any other Terahertz source, It can also be programmed after printing or painting. For example, each point of a ink layer can be activated or deactivated, enabling companies to write information in the form of a specific terahertz emission on its surface. The ink serves as an invisible — and difficult to detect — watermark that companies can use on their products.
Interestingly, THink is an “active” protection — without a specific trigger, it does not reveal its fingerprint, nor does it have particularly revealing features compared to standard inks, even upon inspection with Terahertz cameras.
THink has a wide range of business applications across numerous industries — be it countries looking to protect their banknotes, to luxury groups wanting to watermark their products, to industries wanting to disguise tags on critical items like pieces of equipment or vaccine vials.
University of Sussex researchers note that it is possible to develop multiple inks variation, each with a unique fingerprint, with no significant differences under visible inspection. THink can potentially comply with the aesthetic constraints that many luxury brands have.
Very few people have the specialist skills needed to work with Terahertz technology, making this signature difficult and very expensive to replicate. The flipside to this niche, however, ensures that only the genuine producer can use it.
Businesses can enjoy the benefits of this technology. Brands, for instance, will be able to market their specific Terahertz watermarking in their product, making it easy to distinguish authentic and counterfeit products, thus reinforcing consumer trust and add a deterrent layer against counterfeiters.
Unique electromagnetic fingerprints can also be used for adding a secure layer in personal ID identification and increasing access to critical services.
A Terahertz “source” can also be printed on a document during a standard printing process, which means companies can encrypt the information on their goods and hide its presence.
Within the market of current Terahertz solutions, no Terahertz source available can access these applications as they are bulky, not suitable for large-area deployment, in addition to not being “friendly” with other objects and technologies.
THink is currently in active development. The research is being led by Professor Marco Peccianti of the Emergent Photonics Lab (EPic). THink is part of a partnership with Materials Physics group at Sussex.
EPic is a fertile research environment at the University of Sussex focusing on the “emergent” photonic properties in complex non-linear optical systems. The lab presently hosts the work of 12 researchers directed by Marco Peccianti and Alessia Pasquazi, the lab founders.
Research interests at EPic are split into two major directions, on integrated non-linear photonic systems and their application in quantum technologies and in cutting edge Terahertz technologies.
Materials Physics’ research focuses on liquid-processable nanomaterials to enable new functionalities in electronic, optical, and energy devices. Led by Prof. Alan Dalton, Materials Physics has applied processes developed for 2D materials to produce THink.