The high-powered attendees at the 2014 TED conference currently underway in Vancouver may not know it, but the ID badges granting them access feature what might be the world’s most advanced anti-counterfeiting technology—and they’re based on the optical properties of the blue morpho butterfly.
The iridescent patches on the event badges are manufactured by Burnaby, B.C.-based NanoTech Security. TED is the company’s first commercial customer for its “KolourOptik” anti-counterfeiting technique. The complexity of printing holograms has long been used to foil counterfeiters of currency and credit cards; NanoTech’s printing process is even more difficult to duplicate, allowing organizers to ensure the authenticity of the badges.
“If you were to pick up a blue morpho and look at it,” says NanoTech’s lead scientist Clint Landrock, “you’d notice the blue wings are not actually blue. They’re sort of a greyish transparent. The blue comes from light interacting with these nanostructures that are located on the wings.” Like the blue morpho, KolourOptik uses only light and nanostructures—not pigment—to produce its effect. The printing process embosses features smaller than a wavelength of light into flat surfaces to produce images that are brighter, higher resolution and more distinct than holograms.
In December, NanoTech and manufacturing partner ITW Security and Brand Identity showcased KolourOptik at Intergraf’s international security printers’ exhibition in Vienna, and Landrock says he was happy with the company’s reception. One item NanoTech displayed was a three-by-two centimetre totem pole made of polyethylene that went from a murky silhouette to a vibrant, high-resolution image when light reflected off its surface.
The totem pole was relatively large-scale for KolourOptik and embedded in its eyes was a .6 x .6 mm orca whale that appeared fully detailed under magnification.
“It’s really getting closer to that Holy Grail of anti-counterfeiting,” says Landrock, who began exploring nanotechnology’s anti-counterfeiting potential as an engineering graduate student at Simon Fraser University in 2008. “It’s easy to use, it’s easy to explain, yet extraordinarily hard to duplicate.”
Putting a dollar figure on counterfeiting’s cost to the global economy is difficult and the Canadian Anti-Counterfeiting Network says the common estimate of about $500 billion is probably low because so much goes undetected. “Roughly six to 10% of all products across all industries are counterfeit,” says Landrock. “It’s not just bank notes and passports and IDs. It’s pharmaceuticals… things like brake pads and airplane parts.”
In response, the holography industry has grown to about US$3.5 billion, as companies, particularly in China and India, strive to shore up security. Around 60% of holography revenue is in security products, according to the International Hologram Manufacturers Association.
It remains to be seen how much of a bite NanoTech can take from holography’s market, but Landrock says KolourOptik can be produced on the same scale at a competitive cost. The company is targeting personal identification, electronic goods and currency.
“We’re commercially ready to go and we have a really strong commercial product,” he says.