Plasma implants protect against counterfeit goods

An ultra-fast laser system that creates unique images within glass bottles could protect consumers from potentially dangerous counterfeit medicines and alcoholic drinks.

The technology, used to create plasma that is implanted into the glass, generates individual patterns on the surface of the bottle.

These could be used to identify individual bottles or batches of alcoholic beverages, pharmaceuticals or perfumes, according to its developer Dr Matthew Murray, a research fellow in the School of Chemical and Process Engineering at Leeds University.

“Our aim is to create a security measure that is in place right from the moment that the glass comes out of the furnace, up to the point that it goes into a customer’s home,” said Murray, who was recently awarded the Royal Academy of Engineering ERA Foundation Entrepreneurs’ Award for the technology, known as Alpin.

To create the patterns, the system uses a femtosecond laser, which creates a series of very short light pulses. When these pulses, which contain large amounts of energy, are focused onto a target material, it converts it into plasma in an ablative process, said Murray. “Because of the tremendous amounts of energy involved, it causes [this plasma] to explode off the surface at high velocity, in what looks like an aerosol spray.”

This plasma is then captured in the glass bottle to become implanted within the material, said Murray. “We are mixing up the target and substrate material during this implantation process, and when we do that we create a unique environment that can’t be replicated through any other kind of process,” he said.

In this way the system is able to create unique optical signatures that can describe where or when a product was manufactured, and by whom.  Since the technique implants permanent colour into the glass with very fine levels of detail, it could also be used to add decorative features to perfume bottles, for example, Murray said.

A spin-out company, Ultramatis, has been created to commercialise the technology.