Researchers develop special fluorescent ink to reveal counterfeit products


File photo. (REUTERS/Fred Greaves)

One day soon, the simple act of taking a photo with your smartphone could help fight crime, and prevent you from getting ripped off in the process. With just one snap, you could instantly know whether or not someone is trying to sell you a fake. How is this possible? Northwestern University scientists have invented new advanced fluorescent inks – revealed through a phone’s ultraviolet light – that serve as the product barcodes of the future.

Counterfeiting is a mega big business that totals up to 650 billion dollars in global losses every year, according to the International Chamber of Commerce.

The research team discovered the fluorescent inks by a lucky accident. The water-based inks are prepared from simple and inexpensive commodity chemicals.

This discovery represents a creative twist on security and encryption — the researchers have combined an encryption and authentication security system with inkjet-printing technology.

How does it work?

Under natural light, this kind of ink is invisible, but is revealed when highlighted by a smartphone’s ultraviolet light.

To defeat counterfeiters, this ink could be applied to nearly anything, from the world’s most expensive handbags to rare liquor and even banknotes. It could be used to stamp barcodes or QR codes to confirm authenticity.

The researchers say that this new ink would be extremely difficult for counterfeiters to copy making it a great tool for both manufacturers and consumers.

Each manufacturer would possess its own distinctive ink and ink formula.

“We have introduced a level of complexity not seen before in tools to combat counterfeiters,” Sir Fraser Stoddart, Northwestern University professor and senior author of the research, said in a press release. “Our inks are similar to the proprietary formulations of soft drinks. One could approximate their flavor using other ingredients, but it would be impossible to match the flavor exactly without a precise knowledge of the recipe.”

Creating Unique Colors

There are three different “ingredient” molecules present in these inks – one of these ingredients is common household sugar. The fluorescent color can be adjusted when sugar dissolved in water is added.

The color will depend on the amount of each of these three ingredients present and how they interact with one another. The inks can be made as a single multiple colors.

For example, when the researchers add cyclodextrin, the fluorescent color shifts from red to yellow and then to green. The colors shift back and forth with the addition of a different compound.

Want to know what else is cool? The ink reacts to the surface it is stamped on. While it may appear green on a newspaper, for instance, it may be orange on printer paper.

Recipe turned Encryption Tool

The inventors are calling this ink a built-in “molecular encryption” tool.

A manufacturer would control its own specific ink “recipe.” The researchers behind the ink say it would be nearly impossible for a counterfeiter to reverse engineer the color information encoded in the printed barcodes, QR codes, or trademarks.

If a counterfeiter tried to copy the signature ink recipe, any tiny variation would lead to massive color change exposing the counterfeit.

Ballet dancer turned defense specialist Allison Barrie has traveled around the world covering the military, terrorism, weapons advancements and life on the front line. You can reach her at or follow her on Twitter @Allison_Barrie.