Today’s Solutions: September 28, 2023

Though fingerprint recognition may make us feel like we have control over our privacy when it comes to accessing our electronic devices, much like other modern security labels — like QR codes and electronic passes — our fingerprints are vulnerable to the possibility of being replicated. 

A team of Serbian scientists at the Institute of Physics Belgrade is now working on a unique authentication label made from tiny fragments of butterfly wings that’s impossible to copy, and thus could one day put an end to fraud. “There is currently no security label that is uncopyable,” says Marija Mitrovic Dankulov, one of the scientists behind the project, who believes that no hacker could unlock the butterfly security label.

What are butterfly wings made of?

The team’s solution was born out of the wings of a butterfly, which are covered in hundreds of thousands of tiny chitin scales, arranged like overlapping roof tiles. These scales are essentially the “dust” that stays behind on your fingers after you touch a butterfly or a moth.

By zeroing in on these scales with a powerful electron microscope, Dunkulov’s colleague Deja Pantelic realized something: Each tiny scale features a lattice with a mesh-like structure that is as unique as a fingerprint.

Soon after the revelation, the Serbian team of physicists turned the idea into a prototype security system that they named “Teslagram”, after the great ethnic Serb inventor Nikola Tesla. The concept, Dankulov explains, is to attach a butterfly scale to an object and then enter the exact visual details of the scale into a database to ensure the item is not a fraudulent copy.

“Let’s say a museum wants to loan a very valuable art piece out to some gallery,” Dankulov says, “Currently, when that artwork is returned, the museum has to pay some specialist to ensure that what they got back was the original artwork.” If the art piece had a butterfly scale affixed somewhere onto its surface, the museum would instead be able to use a “reader” to check that the butterfly scale matches the visual details in the artwork’s database.

A butterfly “barcode” that’s impossible to copy

Importantly, these butterfly “barcodes” are so tiny and fragile that attempting to tamper with them would do visible damage. What’s more, because the scales are three-dimensional, copying one is virtually impossible.

According to the scientists, the unique scales can be sourced from any species, including those considered pests, such as the white cabbage butterfly, which is abundant in Serbia. As reported by RFERL, the captured butterflies are held with food and water until their life cycle is complete and they die naturally — usually within a few days. The work then begins on collecting the scales using a secret process that ends with the tiny flakes suspended in an alcohol solution.

The team is now working on improving the concept and envisions the technology to eventually be used for a variety of applications, including marking medicines with Teslagrams so they could easily be checked by consumers for authenticity.

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