Plasma anti-counterfeit tech wins UK engineering award

Dr. Matthew MurrayA technology that could be used to add a hard-to-copy anti-counterfeiting feature to glass has won this year's Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) prize.

The Alpin technology - developed by Dr Matthew Murray of the University of Leeds - allows plasmas to be implanted into glass, creating a pattern that can be used to identify individual batches of products in bottles, such as pharmaceuticals, alcohol and perfume.

The patented technology is called ultrafast laser plasma implantation (ULPI), which can "implant any glass with femtosecond-laser generated plasma - a highly charged and energetic gas, such as one containing optically active elements," according to the RAE.

The process introduces visible or light-activated colouring (e.g. when exposed to ultraviolet light) to a glass. Applying a mask, analogous to a stencil, ULPI can create a pattern upon the surface, such as a barcode or branding. The patterns can therefore carry detailed information, such as where and when a product was manufactured.

Plasma techOne application of the technology could be to add a 'fingerprint' motif - unique for an individual batch or product - which can be detected using a handheld scanner and provide security and authenticity for products such as pharmaceutical, alcohol and perfume bottles.

Importantly, the marking becomes part of the glass substrate, as opposed to methods that rely on coating the surface.

Professor Gin Jose, who leads the research team in the University’s School of Chemical and Process Engineering that developed the technique, said: "The lasers put in tremendous amounts of energy, stripping apart atoms and electrons in the material we want to implant.

"This forms a plasma - a highly charged energetic gas - that travels at several miles a second into the glass. The resulting material is not just a new surface; it is integrated into the structure of the glass itself, creating a new material with its own properties."

Murray -who is chief technical officer and a co-founder of Ultramatis, a company set up to commercialise Alpin - receives a £10,000 personal prize along with £30,000 to invest in developing the technology further.

"When we shine a laser on the material, we get a very specific light signature that cannot be mimicked with another method," he said. "The signature changes depending on what combination of materials we implant, allowing us to encode information securely in the glass."

He was one of a small group of researchers selected to give a 10 minute pitch about their innovations to a panel of senior engineers and business people.

"Each of us was grilled on our technology, business plan and our personal drives and ambitions - it really did feel exactly like Dragon’s Den," he said.

"The fact that our technology is proven and the business case is clear made it easier for me."

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