The nanoscale 'fingerprints' are made by randomly dumping 20 to 30 individual nanowires, each with an average length of 10 to 50 µm, onto a thin plastic film, and could be used to tag a variety of goods from electronics and drugs to credit cards and bank notes.
According to the researchers, the fingerprints are almost impossible to replicate because of the natural randomness of their creation and the difficulty associated with manipulating such small materials.
Lead author of the research Professor Hyotcherl Ihee, from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) and Institute for Basic Science (IBS), said: "It is nearly impossible to replicate the fingerprints due to the difficulty in trying to manipulate the tiny nanowires into a desired pattern. The cost of generating such an identical counterfeit pattern would generally be much higher than the value of the typical product being protected."
The researchers estimate that the fingerprints could be produced at a cost of less than $1 per single pattern, which was demonstrated in their study by synthesizing a solution containing individual silver nanowires, coating the nanowires with silica, doping them with specific fluorescent dyes and then randomly dropping them onto a transferable film made from flexible polyethylene terephthalate (PET).
The fluorescent dyes allowed the patterns, which are invisible to the naked eye, to be visually identified and authenticated under an optical microscope and could add another layer of complexity to the 'fingerprints' if a number of different coloured dyes are used.
The researchers believe the fingerprints could also be tagged with a unique ID, or barcode, which could facilitate a quick search in a database and ease the process of authentication or counterfeit identification.
"Once a pattern is tagged and stored on a database using a unique ID, a certain substrate, whether this is a bank note or a credit card, could be authenticated almost immediately by observing the fluorescence images and comparing