Researchers from the University of Copenhagen have developed a unique marking system made from grains of altered sand that could put a halt to counterfeit goods.

The ‘fingerprint’ could be used for combatting pirated goods including pharmaceuticals, foodstuff, designer merchandise and artwork.

The probability of a pattern being duplicated by chance is virtually non-existent. According to Thomas Just Sørensen, head researcher from the University of Copenhagen’s Nano Science Centre, the probability “corresponds to a one out of an enormous number composed of a six followed by 104 zeros.”

The development, published in Science Advances, explains how the random code is created by filling three tubs with sand, and then adding one rare earth to each: europium, terbium and dysprosium.

These rare earths, which light up when exposed to a specific wavelength of light, are absorbed into the surface of each grain of sand before all the tubs are thoroughly mixed into one bucket.

A piece of ‘tape’ then pulls thousands of coloured grains of sand from the bucket. The random arrangement of the grains forms the unique, inimitable pattern.

The pattern, measuring only a few millimetres, can then be impregnated into leather, embedded into glass or milled into metal.

Once the manufacturer equips the item with the fingerprint, the imprint is photographed at each rare earth’s wavelength.

When the three pictures are combined into a single image, they are stored in a manufacturer’s database and can be used at any time to check a product’s authenticity.

“The system, which deploys three rare earths among other things, is based on randomness, which makes it unable to be hacked or tampered with”, said Sørensen.

Researchers estimate that the cost of marking products will be around £0.12 each. The University of Copenhagen has taken out a patent on the marking system, and is currently fine-tuning scanning solutions for manufacturing use.

“We estimate that it will take approximately one year,” said Sørensen, “at which point we will be very close to being able to put a commercial version on the market.”

Sørensen explained that they would supply the manufacturer with a different form of tag depending on product type: a finished tag for luxury leather goods, an ink for printed goods, a polymer formulation for electronics, and a powder for quality auto parts. All would use the same unique sand mixture and manufacturers would be aided with integrating the system into production lines.

Manufacturers could then choose the form of authorisation, including a scan using a smartphone app.

“As soon as a customer asks that an authorised dealer checks up on a piece of merchandise that was meant to be marked using the system, an expensive wrist watch for example, the dealer can access a manufacturer database to check its authenticity.”

The sand fingerprint technique is not the first attempt to tackle counterfeit goods using technology, with researchers at Lancaster University developing a holographic label, as well as the growing potential for blockchain technology in supply chains.

In 2016 the OECD found that counterfeit goods made up 2.5% of all international trade, with the research suggesting counterfeit products sold across borders were worth £270 billion in 2013.