Find out how graphene and quantum technology are protecting brands, envisioning a possible future entirely free of fakes.
Graphene has been the cool kid on the (metal) block since its discovery in 2004. Just a single carbon atom thick, graphene is highly conductive, transparent, environmentally-friendly, and 200 times stronger than steel. It’s the new mercury, except that it’s non-toxic. As a material its potential is huge, and has been used in everything from flexible phone screens to wine quality-control to smart clothing (no, we don’t mean tuxedos).
The latest application for graphene is to expose counterfeit products, by making genuine products inimitable. It’s not the first time someone has thought to use the ‘supermaterial’ to protect against counterfeiting; graphene quantum dot producers Dotz Nano are planning to target casinos to improve the UV-glowing spray that genuine chips are coated in to detect for fakes. The spray currently used lasts only a few months, but with embedded graphene quantum dots would last for years.
Last week at the ‘Future without Fakes’ exhibit at the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition, researchers from Lancaster University presented a system of creating unique IDs from graphene’s irregularities. These ID tags can be used to ‘fingerprint’ products so as to guarantee authenticity for a wide range of products. As Professor Rob Young explains, a hologram is “now relatively straightforward to make”, and counterfeiters are no longer duped by them. The graphene tags, on an atomic scale, sometimes have “a thousand billion billion atoms”, he says. This means that “to produce the same tag”, a counterfeiter would have to "arrange a thousand billion billion atoms and put them together in exactly the same way".
The tags are tiny; 1/1000th of the thickness of a human hair and almost invisible to the human eye, but they can generate a signal through the emission of light and be recognised as genuine with 100% accuracy via a smartphone app. The app uses a phone's built-in camera flash to illuminate the atoms, which then emit their unique signal. The potential of the tags is enormous; with an unparalleled level of security and with a miniscule, durable, quality, graphene tags could be used to protect almost any product imaginable. They can be easily and cheaply printed, but they are virtually impossible to replicate. The app, also developed by the researcher team at Lancaster, is expected to debut early next year alongside the patented technology.
The effect of the graphene tags is somewhat comparable to RFID chips, which make use radio frequency and can be used for identification and tracking. In the tech world they facilitate NFC mobile payments and connect plastic figurines to video game avatars, but in fashion they have been used by retailers like Walmart to locate and track inventory. Most recently, RFID technology has found a use in recognising unique electronic product codes in authentic products. Luxury fashion brands like Moncler are already protecting their brand through implementation of RFID tags, which are scannable with compatible devices (most modern smartphones), to communicate authenticity to consumers. This of course benefits the consumer and also restores the company’s exclusivity, particularly true given that currently the fashion industry is under threat from high-quality fakes.
RFID tags could have other, more futuristic, uses too: a Quartz article outlines details how a smart bomber jacket by Rochambeau uses NFC to function as a ticket to Fashion Week and a VIP pass to access exclusive experiences and gifts in New York City.
At just a couple of dollars each, RFID tags are affordable for luxury brands at least, and can be washable, ironable and created to just the size of a thread. However, RFID tags can be copied, even when encrypted, using emulator devices. For the purpose of recognising unique codes, perhaps this would not present an issue, but in presenting such a security risk perhaps RFID tags should not be hailed as the solution to counterfeiting in fashion. After all, it’s why holograms are steadily becoming less popular - it’s easy to make a hologram even from home - and if counterfeiters can replicate holograms to a high-enough standard that users are confused, the hologram, as a non-scannable verification method, is made completely ineffective.
Thus it is possible that graphene ID tags, impossible to duplicate and based on a physical signal, could make headway in tackling the great problem of fashion counterfeits in the long-term. The main issue with this tech is that it is not likely to be cheap; graphene is currently priced at around $100 per gram, although the price is likely to be reduced when a scalable manufacturing solution is commercially introduced like this patented detonation technique soon will be. Otherwise, it is likely that counterfeiting will become more problematic for mass-manufactured low-value items, a phenomenon that is already occurring in developing areas of Africa which experience significant counterfeiting of BIC ballpoints. Because of the changing digital landscape, it is vital that companies in every sector take steps to understand how counterfeiting could affect them, and how their brand protection strategy could be tailored to suit their individual brand risks.