Counterfeit goods could become a thing of the past thanks to a breakthrough in quantum technology that lets you authenticate products using only a smartphone.
Researchers at Lancaster University spin-out company Quantum Base drew on the ground-breaking discovery of the world’s thinnest material to invent identity tags that can be verified at the atomic level.
Everything is unique at an atomic scale, but it's extremely difficult to zoom into products and view them this closely. In 2004 this suddenly became possible when two scientists from the University of Manchester made the Nobel Prize-winning discovery of graphene, the world's first two-dimensional material.
This single layer of graphite is just one-atom thick, and when small changes are made to its atomic makeup they result in big structural deviations that can be visible to the naked eye.
These substances can be applied to the surface of a tag on a sports jersey or passport, and the imperfections can then be unlocked just by using a smartphone.
Shining a torch on the tag leads tiny imperfections to glow, which causes the material to emit light corresponding to the arrangement of atoms in that section. This signal can be converted into a number sequence to create a unique optical signature that a smartphone camera can capture. The image is then checked against the manufacturer's database of secure identities on a server farm.
The atomic complexity makes these digital fingerprints cheap to manufacture in tiny ID tags that are almost impossible to clone. A single security tag costs just 1p to produce and contains around one thousand-trillion atoms in a substance that is one-thousandth the size of a human hair.
"It takes the age of the universe to imitate one of our tags," says Quantum Base chief scientist Professor Rob Young.
The security, he explains, is based on the building blocks of nature: individual atoms that together are almost unclonable. An entire nanostructure would need to be built from the level of a single atom up to replicate it.
He demonstrated the invention for the first time at the Royal Society's Summer Science Exhibition with the example of a secure hologram that can be added to consumer products.
Normally such an image can be replicated by placing it under a microscope and producing a copy, but embedding the nanoscale materials produced by Quantum Base makes this impossible.
A UV light illuminates the surface before the camera takes a shot, and the image is cross-checked against a database of tags.
Fighting the counterfeiters
The invention could be a game-changer in the struggle to subdue an enormous counterfeit industry.
Imports of counterfeited and pirated goods around the world are estimated to cost almost half a trillion dollars in lost revenue every year and comprise around 4 percent of goods imported into the UK.
Fake products lose more than just revenue. Not only do counterfeit medicines cost the industry more than $200 billion every year, a third of them contain no active ingredients and cause a million deaths per year. The Quantum Base technology could be edible and added to individual tablets as well as drug packaging.
"Everyone can use a smartphone to validate a pill in the third world, or a sports jersey here", says Quantum Base CEO Phil Speed. "It's as close to 100 percent secure as science will allow."
The potential consequences of breaches to the growing number of IoT and AI systems, such as brakes in driverless cars, make effective verification even more important.
Quantum Base has also developed electronic quantum IDs that can be integrated into the manufacture of hardware and software to authenticate the equipment by measuring their atomic uniqueness.
The team is currently building a broad portfolio of use cases, and expect the technology to be widely available in the first half of 2018.
"I want to see quantum physics make its way into everyday decisions, so we can make them more secure and make computers faster," says Professor Young.
"Many people are doing quantum computing, which is just the obvious analogue to traditional computing. Quantum physics gives us a whole new toolbox of devices that we can put together in different ways to do different things. I think we're on the cusp of a revolution."