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Edible QR code authenticates expensive whiskey

Technology News |
By Rich Pell

The tiny edible fluorescent silk tag with a QR code is a security measure that could reveal if the whiskey a user is wanting to buy is fake, say the researchers. Simply by using a smartphone to scan the tag could confirm the drink’s authenticity.

This new anticounterfeiting technology, say the researchers, could be a step toward not only finding a solution for the alcohol industry – where scammers are filling luxury bottles with cheap liquor and reselling them often for thousands of dollars – but also addressing fake medications.

“Some liquid medicines contain alcohol,” says Young Kim, associate head for research and an associate professor in Purdue’s Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering. “We wanted to test this first in whiskey because of whiskey’s higher alcohol content. Researchers apply alcohol to silk proteins to make them more durable. Because they tolerate alcohol, the shape of the tag can be maintained for a long time.”

Kim has worked on anticounterfeit measures ranging from cyberphysical watermarks to tags made of fluorescent silk proteins. The tags have a code that a consumer or patient can activate with a smartphone to confirm authenticity of a product.

The code on the fluorescent silk tag is the equivalent of a barcode or QR code and is not visible to the naked eye. The tags are also edible, causing no issues if a person swallowed it while downing a shot of whiskey. The researchers say that the tags have not affected the taste of the whiskey.

Making the tags involves processing fluorescent silk cocoons from specialized silkworms to create a biopolymer, which can be formed into a variety of patterns to encode the information.

“Alcohol spirits are vulnerable to counterfeiting,” says Jungwoo Leem, a postdoctoral research associate. “There are a lot of fake whiskeys being sold.”

“Counterfeit items, such as medicines and alcohol, are big issues around the world,” says Kim. “There are numerous examples of large amounts of fake medications sold throughout the world, which, in some instances, kill people. Online pharmacies sell controlled substances to teens. People can buy counterfeit opioids easily. This work is extremely important for patients and buyers in addressing this issue.”

“If you have this technology on or in your medicines,” says Kim, “you can use your smartphone to authenticate. We want to empower patients to be aware of this issue. We want to work with pharmaceutical companies and alcohol producers to help them address this issue.”

The researchers placed tags in various brands and price points of whiskey (80 proof, 40% alcohol per volume) over a 10-month period and were able to continually activate the tags and codes with a smartphone app. One of the ways of bringing this issue to light, say the researchers, is to literally shine a light on the tags. They developed ways and methods for the tags to be activated by smartphones in a variety of light settings.

For more, see “Edible Matrix Code with Photogenic Silk Proteins.”


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