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MIT to counterfeiters: Good luck faking a nanocrystal

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  April 22, 2014 11:23 AM

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In the running battle between counterfeiters and security experts, researchers at MIT may have gained a decisive edge for the good guys. Their technique? Nanoparticles that come in a mindboggling range of customizable colors, can be embedded invisibly just about anywhere, and can be authenticated using nothing more than an accessorized smartphone.

The technique was described in a video (below) and detailed in the April 13 issue of Nature Materials. It relies on a special type of nanocrystal that can be dyed using rare elements like ytterbium, gadolinium, erbium, and thulium. The "dye" color can be very precisely tuned based on how much of each element is added to the nanocrystals, and the colored crystals themselves are invisible until placed under near-infrared light that can emitted through a microscope-style reader attached to a smartphone. The crystals can be applied to any number of commonly counterfeited products- currency, Gucci bags, the blister packaging around pharmaceuticals- and you know you're looking at the genuine article when the correct set of colors shows up on your smartphone screen. This technique surely won't end the counterfeiting wars, but it does draw a new line in the sand: All right you forging fiends, let's see you beat this.

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Image credits, from top: Jose-Luis Olivares/MIT; Jiseok Lee; Jiseok Lee.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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