• Fighting Counterfeiting: Photon Etc. and the University of Montreal Develop Technology for Molecular Signature
  • August 9, 2013
  • Law Firm: ROBIC LLP - Montreal Office
  • Counterfeiting of consumer goods keeps reaching new industrial sectors and the complexity of supply chains in an era of globalization adds to the opacity of an already challenging issue. Indeed, the consequences of counterfeiting goes beyond the potential risks on human health and safety of consumers or loss of revenue for businesses and governments. It undermines the general economy due to the important related job losses while greatly reducing the funding for innovation, given a substantial reduction in benefits associated therewith.

    There are many ways to address counterfeiting, including, in legal terms, regulation emanating from governments and other public entities. However, in practical terms, manufacturers are looking for innovative technological solutions for the identification and authentication of products to control (e.g. drugs, auto parts, currencies). After several decades of barcode domination, this market is currently in transition to radio frequency identification (RFID) chips. In both cases, there are two aspects to consider in terms of counterfeiting.

    The first aspect is the development of a coding system which enables the recording and the reading of a certain amount of information about a product and its origin, in order to ensure its authenticity. This system already exists and is highly codified in various national and international organisations or by companies specialized in standardization.

    Then, the other aspect is the infringement of the code itself. Many of the technologies used to print these codes are based on recent developments in optical technologies such as holography, fluorescence or nanotechnology. In most cases commercialized until now, the code is unreadable without the corresponding device. Counterfeiting is thus harder, since advanced technical knowledge is required to achieve it. However, it remains accessible to the criminal world which refines its methods to a surprising pace.

    The ideal solution is thus to develop a label that has a unique and unrepeatable signature. This is precisely what enables a significant advance in nanotechnology achieved through a collaboration between researchers at the University of Montreal and Photon etc., a company that develops and commercializes optical analysis instruments at the forefront of technology.

    Dr. Martel, Full Professor of the Canada Research Chair on Electricity-Conducting Interfaces and Nanostructures at the University of Montreal, develops particles called carbon nanotubes. These particles offer many advantages in the development of new materials: increased conductivity, strength, durability. It is possible to study the unique properties of these particles using spectroscopy. This approach enables the identification of the constituents of materials observed, since each type of atom or molecule interacts with light in a unique way. With an instrument accurate enough and a deep understanding of the different ways materials can reemit light, it is possible to identify any arrangement of atoms.

    The work of Dr. Martel led to the development of a technique that allows the unique identification of an object by integrating these new nanotracers to it. The major progress is based both on how to bring out specific signals of a molecule, or "encode" the nanotracer with a special optical signature, and also on the protection of the encoded message. In fact, to counterfeit a recipe, you first need to access it. The proposed configuration uses minimal concentrations of molecules and makes the extraction of these molecules impossible by design. Although you can observe the light emitted by the nanotracers, one cannot know the exact structure behind it, which is equivalent to making the receipe inaccessible to duplication. Thus, even with access to products identified by this technology, potential infringers will not be able to analyze the nanotracers and reproduce their optical signature.

    Based on the use of high performance holographic gratings, the patented technology of Photon etc. can rapidly detect and identify the optical signature of nanotracers, making the large-scale deployment of this technology possible in the mid-term to help anti-counterfeiting.

    An agreement on intellectual property and the right of use has been concluded between Univalor, the University of Montreal and Photon etc. for the commercialization of this unique authentication solution. The considerable potential benefits of such a development is obviously part of a broader fight against counterfeiting. One thing is certain: this breakthrough could help companies here and elsewhere to protect their brands, their products, and their customers effectively and inexpensively.