Chemical engineers hope smartphone-readable microparticles could crack down on counterfeiting.
Some 2 to 5 percent of all international trade involves counterfeit goods, according to a 2013 United Nations report. These illicit products — which include electronics, automotive and aircraft parts, pharmaceuticals, and food — can pose safety risks and cost governments and private companies hundreds of billions of dollars annually.
Many strategies have been developed to try to label legitimate products and prevent illegal trade — but these tags are often too easy to fake, are unreliable, or cost too much to implement, according to MIT researchers who have developed a new alternative.
Led by MIT chemical engineering professor Patrick Doyle and Lincoln Laboratory technical staff member Albert Swiston, the researchers have invented a new type of tiny, smartphone-readable particle that they believe could be deployed to help authenticate currency, electronic parts, and luxury goods, among other products. The particles, which are invisible to the naked eye, contain colored stripes of nanocrystals that glow brightly when lit up with near-infrared light.
These particles can easily be manufactured and integrated into a variety of materials, and can withstand extreme temperatures, sun exposure, and heavy wear, says Doyle, the senior author of a paper describing the particles in the April 13 issue of Nature Materials. They could also be equipped with sensors that can “record” their environments — noting, for example, if a refrigerated vaccine has ever been exposed to temperatures too high or low.
The paper’s lead authors are MIT postdoc Jiseok Lee and graduate student Paul Bisso. MIT graduate students Rathi Srinivas and Jae Jung Kim also contributed to the research.
‘A massive encoding capacity’
The new particles are about 200 microns long and include several stripes of different colored nanocrystals, known as “rare earth upconverting nanocrystals.” These crystals are doped with elements such as ytterbium, gadolinium, erbium, and thulium, which emit visible colors when exposed to near-infrared light. By altering the ratios of these elements, the researchers can tune the crystals to emit any color in the visible spectrum.
To manufacture the particles, the researchers used stop-flow lithography, a technique developed previously by Doyle. This approach allows shapes to be imprinted onto parallel flowing streams of liquid monomers — chemical building blocks that can form longer chains called polymers. Wherever pulses of ultraviolet light strike the streams, a reaction is set off that forms a solid polymeric particle.
In this case, each polymer stream contains nanocrystals that emit different colors, allowing the researchers to form striped particles. So far, the researchers have created nanocrystals in nine different colors, but it should be possible to create many more, Doyle says.
Using this procedure, the researchers can generate vast quantities of unique tags. With particles that contain six stripes, there are 1 million different possible color combinations; this capacity can be exponentially enhanced by tagging products with more than one particle. For example, if the researchers created a set of 1,000 unique particles and then tagged products with any 10 of those particles, there would be 1030 possible combinations — far more than enough to tag every grain of sand on Earth.
“It’s really a massive encoding capacity,” says Bisso, who started this project while on the technical staff at Lincoln Lab. “You can apply different combinations of 10 particles to products from now until long past our time and you’ll never get the same combination.”
“The use of these upconverting nanocrystals is quite clever and highly enabling,” says Jennifer Lewis, a professor of biologically inspired engineering at Harvard University who was not involved in the research. “There are several striking features of this work, namely the exponentially scaling encoding capacities and the ultralow decoding false-alarm rate.”
The microparticles could be dispersed within electronic parts or drug packaging during the manufacturing process, incorporated directly into 3-D-printed objects, or printed onto currency, the researchers say. They could also be incorporated into ink that artists could use to authenticate their artwork.
The Latest on: Upconverting nanocrystals
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The Latest on: Upconverting nanocrystals
- Near-infrared light-mediated rare-earth nanocrystals: recent advances in improving photon conversion and alleviating the thermal effecton July 31, 2018 at 5:00 pm
With the rapid development of nanotechnology, the unique rare-earth lanthanide-doped upconversion nanocrystals (UCNs), which can convert tissue-penetrable near-infrared (NIR) photonic irradiation into ...
- Upconverting nanophosphors make good radiotracerson April 25, 2018 at 5:00 pm
A new technique to synthesize radioactive upconverting nanocrystals that was previously used to extract uranium from ore could be used to make efficient radiotracers for biomedical imaging, say ...
- Composite particles with magnetic properties, near-infrared excitation, and far-red emission for luminescence-based oxygen sensingon October 18, 2015 at 5:00 pm
Upconverting nanocrystals are used as an excitation source and an oxygen indicator with far-red emission. The composite particles are excited with near infrared (NIR) laser light (980 nm). The visible ...
- You can soon detect counterfeit goods with your smartphoneon April 30, 2014 at 12:26 pm
200 microns long MIT said the new particles are about 200 microns long and include stripes of different colored nanocrystals, known as “rare earth upconverting nanocrystals.” It said these crystals ...
- Tiny Particles Could Help Verify Goodson April 13, 2014 at 5:00 pm
‘A massive encoding capacity’ The new particles are about 200 microns long and include several stripes of different colored nanocrystals, known as “rare earth upconverting nanocrystals.” These ...
- Smartphone-readable particles could help crack down on counterfeitingon April 12, 2014 at 5:00 pm
A massive encoding capacity' The new particles are about 200 microns long and include several stripes of different colored nanocrystals, known as “rare earth upconverting nanocrystals.” These crystals ...
- Bright Future for Protein Nanoprobeson March 24, 2014 at 10:59 am
the ability to synthesize ultra-small upconverting nanocrystals of almost any composition, and the advanced modeling/simulation of UCNP optical properties. There aren’t many facilities in the world ...
- Bright Future for Protein Nanoprobeson March 16, 2014 at 5:00 pm
The paper is titled “Engineering bright sub-10-nm upconverting nanocrystals for single-molecule imaging.” Co-authors are Daniel Gargas, Emory Chan, Alexis Ostrowski, Shaul Aloni, Virginia Altoe, ...
- Intelligent material advances energy technologieson January 21, 2014 at 1:11 pm
Highly uniform, rare-earth-based nanocrystals of various sizes and morphologies can be programmed to convert wavelengths throughout the spectrum, providing energy and information where needed. 21 ...
- Brighter, smaller probes to uncover the secret lives of proteinson May 7, 2012 at 5:00 pm
Cohen is corresponding author of a paper in the February 16, 2012 issue of ACS Nano describing this work titled, “Controlled Synthesis and Single-Particle Imaging of Bright, Sub-10 nm Lanthanide-Doped ...
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