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Printed micro-lasers combat pharma and other fraud

01 Feb 2016

Invisible "Ilumink" photonic signatures protect authentic drugs and valuable goods against counterfeiters.

A major challenge facing consumers of medication and owners of valuable branded goods is the growing problem of counterfeit goods – whether drugs or consumer products. But the developers of a new photonics-based security approach, created at Cambridge University, UK, believe these threats can be countered by laser-tagging the authentic products. The technology has recently started to be commercialized by UK company Tracerco.

The new method can print unique images onto products such as pharmaceutical tablets to clearly identify the “real McCoy” and enable counterfeit goods to be rejected. The Cambridge developers, led by physicist and engineer Dr Damian Gardiner, say that this technology could be applied to a wide range of products – from currency to pharmaceuticals – to cut fraud and reduce health risks.

Inkjet printable

The laser printing technique was developed within the University’s Electrical Engineering Division and supported by Cambridge Enterprise. It uses liquid crystal “ink” made from molecules that form helical patterns, which can be inkjet-printed onto many material surfaces and dynamically encoded on the fly. Inkjet printing provides a precise level of control over the material’s pattern and functionality. Different types of features can be created, ranging from simple hologram-like patterns, designed for the general public to authenticate, to those for high-security, which need more expensive, specialised equipment to create and detect.

Unlike traditional security holograms, which are fundamentally identical, the new printing method combines optical materials and variable inkjet printing in a way that creates the one-off images. The printed images can emit pure laser light with a specific signature, which can be read by a dedicated reader. Image size can be smaller than that visible to the unaided eye, so offering brand owners overt, covert and forensic authentication in one easily applied print feature.

Dr Gardiner commented, “Because lasers can be printed onto all kinds of surfaces – plastic, paper, metal and glass, among them – the new technique could be used to authenticate a wide range of products. Fake pharmaceuticals are a particular concern globally. Potential markets range from high-value consumer goods and currency to pharmaceuticals.

“Every year, hundreds of thousands of people are sold fake pharmaceuticals under the mistaken belief that they will help them, while counterfeit products cost companies hundreds of billions of pounds,” Gardiner added. “We think that our printed lasers could be used to protect both products and people.”


The technology was adopted in 2015 by Tracerco, an industrial technology company providing unique and specialised detection, diagnostic and measurement solutions and part of the Johnson Matthey group. Tracerco is now building upon these technical foundations to take the technology towards market readiness. The technology offers multiple levels of authentication – ranging from so-called overt features for non-specialists, right through to high-level, forensic elements where the printed material itself emits laser light.

Typical of many technology developments, the project took time to get off the ground. Research began in 2006 in Professor Harry Coles’ group, funded by the Engineering and Physical Research Council (EPSRC), that focused on the development of micron-sized tuneable lasers, for example to produce tuneable colours and patterns for use in various applications such as medical diagnostics.

On the back of this development, Dr Gardiner has been awarded a Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Fellowship by the Royal Academy of Engineering through their Enterprise Hub and Enterprise Fellowship Scheme. The subsequent commercial focus, enabled by the Enterprise Fellowship and the founding of a company Ilumink to develop the technology further, has begun the successful translation of University research into a real product – a major step in the development of the research begun 10 years previously.

About the Author

Matthew Peach is a contributing editor To optics.org.

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