Role of nanotechnology in brand protection

The key to designing a good brand protection technology is to make it easy for brand owners and their investigators to identify genuine goods, while making it very difficult for counterfeiters and crooks to know how that is being done. Nanotechnology can provide such a solution. Using nanotechnology, companies can now apply covert information, such as batch information, directly onto products and packaging. They can, for example, encrypt nanoscale codes onto pharmaceutical pills for tracking and tracing. They can also create nanobarcodes, invisible barcodes that are technologically complex, but can be used to easily authenticate products and packaging. Many more significant advances in nanotechnology are on the way, and the possibilities are almost endless.

Nanotechnology can provide such a solution. Using nanotechnology, companies can now apply covert information, such as batch information, directly onto products and packaging. They can, for example, encrypt nanoscale codes onto pharmaceutical pills for tracking and tracing. They can also create nanobarcodes, invisible barcodes that are technologically complex, but can be used to easily authenticate products and packaging. Many more significant advances in nanotechnology are on the way, and the possibilities are almost endless.

Yet it’s still unclear whether the costs of using nanotechnology for brand protection can be brought down enough to be palatable. Also, there are concerns about what these nanotechnology-derived tags will do once the packaging they’re on has been discarded. Only time will tell if these technologies will be integrated into brand protection programmes.

Why apply covert information to products and packaging?

There are two main reasons to use authentication and track and trace features on a product: the first is to fight counterfeiting; the second is to prevent diversion of products destined for a particular market.

Brand owners have learnt that in order to fight counterfeiting, security technology is often needed. The best solution is to use a combination of overt and covert features.

Overt features, such as holograms, are useful because they enhance a product’s image and consumers will recognise them as marks of authenticity. Holograms, however, are susceptible to counterfeiting because the technology is widely available.

Covert features are useful in the fight against counterfeiting, because under normal circumstances, counterfeiters will not even know they exist. If they do discover the existence of covert marks, they will be deterred from attempting to copy them for the straightforward reason that invisible marks are difficult to imitate.

In addition, covert features are useful in the fight against unauthorised diversion. With information hidden on its products, a brand owner can keep track of where distributors are sending its goods.

For example, if a batch number is tied in with a destination and is hidden on the product’s package, a brand owner’s authorised investigator will know when its products show up in a market where they are not supposed to be. The investigator can trace where products were originally sent, and find the distributor that allowed the diversion.

This system has the potential to allow brand owners to monitor their supply chains without having to share company information with a variety of arms-length distributors and wholesalers. This is because only authorised people in the supply chain will have access to the information on the products

Why nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology is the science of everything small. Everything done at the nanoscale is invisible to the naked eye, making nanotechnology the obvious choice for adding covert information to branded products.

In order to protect public safety, regulatory agencies and governments are demanding that supply chains are as secure as possible.

Pharmaceutical companies are among the most heavily regulated groups, and will be among the first to be forced to ensure their drugs are safe. Already in some places, such as certain US states, regulators are asking pharma firms to provide drug pedigree – a drug’s history from its point of manufacture – with the drugs they supply.

Since pharmaceutical companies often employ cutting-edge nanotechnology in their drug research, they might be among the first to use it to provide this drug pedigree.

Owners of high-end brands are also likely to want to use high-security features incorporating nanotechnology. Because of the higher value of their products, they’ll be willing to spend more if it will mean their products are better protected from counterfeiters.

However, much of the technology is still confined to the laboratory. Many applications of nanotechnology have not been tested, and printing and packaging companies are still hesitant to invest in the technology – they want to use the technology that most brand owners are comfortable with. What’s more, the cost of nanotechnology is still too high to justify its use in many cases. Still, the technology is developing too quickly to ignore.

What are the technology companies doing?

Tiny codes

US nanotechnology company NanoInk is using its patented Dip Pen Nanolithography (DPN) technique to apply drug information directly to pharmaceutical pills and it hopes to use the same technique on packaging. The company is hoping to partner with packaging companies in order to provide a layered solution for its pharmaceutical customers.

The company’s CEO, Chicago-based Dr Cedric Loiret-Bernal, says the company is in discussion with several companies with packaging capabilities. However, he says nothing has been finalised. Because of the global nature of the pharmaceutical industry, the company hopes to work with a global company.

NanoInk’s DPN is a patterning technique that can be used for encrypting pills. NanoInk uses a scanning probe, a molecule-coated probe tip, which acts like a pen, to deposit material onto a surface. The general process involves a chemically engineered ink-and-substrate combination, and the comprehensive nanoscale positioning control allows for high-quality nanolithographic patterns.

The technology has been used to encrypt pharmaceuticals at the pill level, but at press time, it had not yet been used on packaging.

Loiret-Bernal says NanoInk can encrypt each pill with place and day of manufacture, target market and expiry date directly on the pill. He adds that it would be an added advantage to have the same encryption on the pill’s packaging so that it would be evident if the pills had been repackaged.

Loiret-Bernal says the patterning technique is preferred over the use of a taggant in the pill: “From what I understand, the European Medical Agency doesn’t like taggants. And you can’t have a solution that works in one market (US), and doesn’t work in another (Europe) to solve a global problem.”

The pills will not be able to be authenticated in the field. Instead, they will be sent to an auditing centre set up by NanoInk. The company plans to set up six auditing centres around the world, in total being capable of auditing 50 million pills in a year.

Loiret-Bernal says he can’t go into detail about NanoInk’s proprietary auditing process, but he says it’s much simpler than the process used currently, which involves liquid chromatography – a process that Loiret-Bernal says is both time-consuming and costly. He admits they haven’t yet set up their auditing centres but says it is one of their mid-term goals.

Researchers at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in the UK have also developed a way to write valuable information about a product using nanotechnology. But instead of Dip Pen Nanolithography, the NPL researchers are using electron-beam nanolithography. Using this new system, valuable information about products can be hidden from counterfeiters and crooks.

The NPL researchers, Dr David Mendels and Dr Alexandre Cuenat, have discovered how to write tiny barcodes that can be applied to a product’s surface in a coating, or simply embedded in a polymer layer. The researchers say they can fit the same amount of information as the King James Bible onto the sharp end of a pin.

It means the technology has the potential to covertly store valuable information on product packaging, such as drug pedigree, or be used to authenticate high-value goods, such as diamonds.

The NPL is in discussion with several companies that want to protect high-value goods about using the technology, but due to a confidentiality agreement, those companies cannot be named.

Sian Brereton, a business development leader at NPL, says the laboratory hopes to exploit two key features of the technology. Brereton says the technology carries information in a secure way because a specialist reader is needed for it to be decoded. In that way, it could be used to store information on passports and other forms of ID. Secondly, the information is so tiny that it cannot be seen with the naked eye, making it ideal for covertly marking things.

Brereton says the technology is close to commercialisation. But NPL does rely on partners to bring technology to the manufacturing stage. Brereton notes the laboratory is currently talking to a number of potential partners that could take the technology forward:

“It’s not something that needs considerable further development on the research side, but commercialisation would depend on how quickly we come to an agreement and the investment required to tailor the technology to the application.”

The researchers have discovered a way to write more than 90,000 nanoscale squares onto a particle of silicon 30 microns wide. The barcode, which takes the form of a cube, is coated with a 100-nanometre-thick layer of polymethyl methacrylate,The technology, first reported in the New Scientist, uses an electron-beam lithograph to drill 90,000 small squares into the plastic coat of each face at five different depths. The position and depth of each square is unique, so data can be encrypted using a key-based code. The cube is scanned line by line using an electron force microscope, which detects differences in the depth of the squares. The information can then be verified by matching it with information created upon writing the code. According to the researchers, this scanning process takes less than a minute.

Once in mass production, the researchers estimate that each device will cost about e1. It means the technology may not yet be suitable for consumer packaged goods due to its high cost.


Another company using nanotechnology for authentication purposes is Nanoplex Technologies, in California. Nanoplex is about to wrap up trials with several US-based packaging companies about using their nanobarcodes for authentication and track-and-trace, and the technology could be commercialised with one of these companies by the end of 2004.

The first application of the technology is likely to be on either packaging or labelling and the company hopes to extend the technology so that it can eventually be used as a thread and put on materials.

Nanoplex has finished developing the technology and has manufacturing processes in place. The product is supplied as a powder and can be added to liquid or surface coatings.

Nanoplex has developed the nanobarcode particles to be used primarily as a covert tag for anti-counterfeiting applications. But the technology also has the ability to give each item or pallet, depending on how the company opts to apply it, a unique identity code that allows a company to track where the product has been. Every item can be assigned a different code because the system enables billions of unique codes to be made.

The nanoparticles are made up of metals including gold, silver and platinum, which create stripes using the different reflectivity of the metals. Nanoplex can create different codes by altering the stripe order. The barcodes can only be read with a modified microscope and are likely to be used as a last-level taggant, which is read at a central location and known only by a few members of the company.

Nanoplex Director of Chemistry Dr Sharron Penn says the nanobarcodes are a complementary technology to radio frequency identification (RFID). She says the technology competes on cost with the other taggant technologies available.

Though the nanobarcodes are one of the company’s core technologies, there has been some recent interest §in Nanoplex’s medical and diagnostic capabilities. In recent months, the company has spent more time focusing on that side of the business.

An Israeli company has developed near-nanoscale barcodes that do not need to be on the outside of a package to be scanned. Advanced Coding Systems (ACS) will trial these high-tech authentication and track-and-trace features, which are called DataFiber, within 9–12 months.

The company has developed and tested the technology but they don’t yet have the capacity to produce it on a large scale. ACS is now working on the development of a commercial manufacturing process – the company says the engineering work has already begun.

Yoav Dvir, the company’s president, says ACS is talking with several interested parties about use of the DataFiber, including brand owners and governments.

The DataFiber solution uses ACS’s magnetic MicroWire technology to create a covert code within an item or its packaging. The code provides authentication as well as track-and-trace information such as ID, batch number and expiry date. Unlike RFID solutions, the DataFiber tag is not compromised by metallic materials such as aluminium, magnesium, copper, bronze or brass.

The DataFiber tag is made out of several glass-coated magnetic MicroWires, which can be produced with a very small diameter ranging from few microns to tens of microns, from a variety of magnetic and non-magnetic alloys and pure metals. These MicroWires are placed on a tag that can be about 15x30mm, and will therefore fit on most product packaging.

The DataFiber reader can read the tag somewhat like an RFID reader reads an RFID tag. The reader contains a magnetic analogue circuit for generating a magnetic field and it receives the wires’ remagnetisation pulse response. The reader can be mounted on a production line, or it can be handheld.

Despite the fact that the DataFiber tags share similarities with RFID tags, Dvir says they are not competing technologies. He believes DataFiber can work alongside RFID. Dvir says one thing that differentiates DataFiber and RFID is the price – when the tags are commercialised they will cost less than e0.05 each.

Figure 2. Template-directed synthesis of Nanobarcodes particles. Source: Nanoplex

What is the market for this technology?

There is very little historical market information for the use of nanotechnology for writing codes and covert information. However, in Pira’s market report entitled The Future of Nanotechnology in Printing and Packaging, author Dexter Johnson estimates that the market will experience incredible growth over the next five years. To reach that conclusion, he uses the internal estimates of providers of nanobarcodes (US$500 million in 2007) along with demand surveys of those in the printing and packaging industries.

Printing and packaging respondents to the author’s survey reportedly indicated that quantum dots and nanowires are technologies they are targeting. Respondents were less enthusiastic about nanobarcodes.

Johnson writes with more certainty about nanolithography, which is used by NanoInk and researchers at the National Physical Laboratory. But Johnson points to their potential in more areas than just brand protection. He says potential markets for nanolithography include research labs, lab-on-a-chip systems for the pharmaceutical industry, making moulds for soft lithography (or nanoprinting), and NanoElectroMechanical Systems (NEMS) for applications in resonators and wireless technology.

“The total market size of these applications is substantial,” he writes. “NEMS could begin to make inroads into the $7 billion MEMS market, requiring more use of nanolithographic tools.”

Figure 3. Packaging applications targeted with nanotechnology by suppliers. Source: Pira International

The recycling challenge

Some practical issues still remain with nanotechnology. It has not yet been discovered whether certain nanotechnologies can be properly recycled, and with governments moving towards rewarding greener business practices, this could be a problem.

One issue that plagues the security tagging market is the question of what happens to the codes once they’ve been discarded. This issue applies to many brand protection technologies using nanotechnology, such as nanobarcodes and tiny wires. There hasn’t yet been a comprehensive study on how easily things like nanobarcodes and other covert taggants can be recycled.

Gary Parker, Consultant at Pira, says that although he believes a proper study should be done, he imagines nanobarcodes probably will not affect recycling: “A little bit of metal would probably not significantly affect recycling.” However, he says the impact of security tags may be different: “The impact of security tags and RFID on recycling is an unknown quantity – research is required. I imagine the tags would be broken up during recycling and so not readable, but work needs to be undertaken to prove this.”

Figure 4. Actual size of a DataFiber tag. Source: ACS Datafiber

Who is using these systems?

Much of the technology discussed in this article has not yet been commercialised. However, there are some important partnerships in the works, indicating that businesses are investing in the future of the technology.

ACS and Applied DNA Sciences

Applied DNA Sciences (ADNAS), a botanical DNA security solutions company, has recently signed a memorandum of agreement with Advanced Coding Systems (ACS), makers of DataFiber.

The partnership calls for ADNAS and ACS to develop new security products that marry ADNAS’s proprietary botanical DNA security technology with ACS’s patented technology. ACS will exclusively manufacture the new MicroWire products embedded with DNA and Applied DNA Sciences will exclusively market the new products worldwide.

The collaboration is to develop a DNA-embedded Digital Magnetic Identification Device (DNA-DMID). The DNA-DMID system will be a DataFiber tag and reader, and will incorporate botanical DNA. The ADNAS botanical DNA is encapsulated in tiny particles, designed to withstand heat and pressure, using nanotechnology. The reader, already developed by ACS, has the ability to read directly through the walls of cartons and containers and identify the contents inside.

The DNA-embedded MicroWires can be integrated into product packaging, cartons, paper, tags, clothing, passports, security documents and virtually any product requiring identification.

Yoav Dvir, President of ACS, says, “DNA-DMID will provide an instant, low-cost security technology for the global anti-counterfeit and brand protection market. Our existing product lines… will now be enhanced by the forensic qualities provided by Applied DNA Sciences.”

The two companies say that when these products have been released, they will provide covert coding-based solutions for a wide range of industries, including homeland security, pharmaceutical, beauty products, luxury goods, automotive, and fine art and collectibles.

Future outlook

Nanotechnology in brand protection applications is expected to grow exponentially over the next five years. But with the technology discussed in this article mostly confined to the lab, the market can only grow.

The technology is so new that tests have not yet revealed positive or negative results. In addition, the nanoscale protection can vary between e0.05–1.00 for each item, and since authentication technology is available at a lower cost elsewhere, it’s more than most end-users want to spend. There is still work to be done before the technology will be adopted. Only time will tell where the first applications will be.


  • Nanotechnology companies can create codes that cannot be seen with the human eye – codes that are technologically complex, but that can be used to easily authenticate products.
  • Much of the technology is still confined to the lab. It means that many applications of nanotechnology have not been tested, and printing and packaging companies are hesitant to invest in it. What’s more, the cost of nanotechnology is still too high in many cases. Still, the technology is moving too fast to ignore.
  • A covert marking system using nanotechnology has the potential to allow brand owners to monitor their supply chains without having to share company information with a variety of arms-length distributors and wholesalers.
  • Technology companies can create these covert features using a variety of techniques, including nanolithography and proprietary barcode building technologies.
  • The market for nanotechnology in brand protection can only grow.
  • More research needs to be undertaken to understand how nanobarcodes and other nano-inspired security tags will affect the recycling of products.
  • The technologies described are so new that they have not yet been commercialised. However, they show a lot of potential and forward-looking
  • companies are trying to find a niche for them.