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Startups Famous butterfly inspires anti-counterfeiting nanotechnology

blue Morpho butterfly

Milous Chab/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Anti-counterfeiting technology is a hot commodity: Everything from banknotes to credit cards to purses to replacement inkjet cartridges are potential clients for devices like holograms, which – being hard for counterfeiters to replicate at Kinko's – prove that an item is the real deal.

But holograms aren't as hard to duplicate as once they were; the technology has just become too widely-available.

Leveraging research at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver-based NanoTech Security Corp. wants to one-up those now-ubiquitous holograms with a technique that will allow bright, colourful inscriptions to be etched directly into almost any material. The technique involves using an electron beam to carve minutely small structures into material – so small, they're shorter than the wavelength of light itself – which catch the light in much the same way as the Blue Morpho, a famously iridescent butterfly.

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For instance, the etching could be applied straight onto a purse clasp. "When somebody walked by, you'd see a bright flickering image that disappears. There's no way to duplicate it, other than the real thing," says Doug Blakeway, NanoTech's CEO.

Mr. Blakeway was acting as Entrepreneur-in-Residence at SFU when he came across this technology, which its developers hit upon while investigating better ways of making solar panels. He liked it so much, he invested in the company, eventually taking the reins himself.

Unlike holography, which requires the application of dyes and pigments, NanoTech's technique doesn't add anything at all to the material: it merely takes away, drilling tiny holes into it to reflect light, like a sculptor chiseling from rock.

"The structures we're using are very similar to the ones on butterfly wings," says Clint Landrock, NanoTech's chief technology officer, and one of the two scientists who pioneered the technique.

And not just any butterfly: The technique mimicked the Blue Morpho, an infamously luminescent butterfly. "You'll notice that iridescent wings are transparent or semi-transparent," he says. "They use layers of material to absorb light and highly evolved nanostructures to reflect light."

The ideal anti-counterfeiting product has to walk a fine balance: On one hand, it needs to be very difficult to duplicate, to keep even well-funded counterfeiters away. On the other, it needs to be easy enough to manufacture in bulk, so that customers can actually afford it.

NanoTech's solution is a process whereby creating the master is exceedingly difficult, but the duplication is easy. The master is created in a specialized clean-room environment. However, duplication happens on more commonplace "roll-to-roll" machines, the same ones that currently produce holograms. But without the master, there can be no duplication.

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The company has spent the last few years refining the process and increasing the yield of useable products per attempt, and now its holographs are ready to see the light of day: NanoTech has shipped its first masters and expects to see its first products based on this process out in 2013. Confident that their process can be commercialized, NanoTech is partnering with large anti-counterfeiting firms to scale their operation and reach the global market. Now there's something to get into a flap about.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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