There may be a temptation to conclude that after a flurry of activity 12 months ago nothing of great moment is occurring with regard to the design, development and licensing of technology aimed at reducing the harmful effects of counterfeiting, Any such assessment, however, would be grossly misleading.

Here are a couple of reasons why:

As first reported by IHS Jane's International Defence Review on 23 June, Kerry Bernstein, program manager in the Microsystems Electronics Office of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) confirmed that the agency is set to begin Phase 3 testing of its Supply Chain Hardware Integrity for Electronics Defense (SHIELD) capability to check electronic components for authenticity using a tiny sensor and a probe plugged into an iPhone or other smartphone.

The first phase of SHIELD included research and development efforts for the technologies to be implemented on a dielet containing up to 100,000 transistors, a two-way radio and a data encryption engine. In the second phase, contractors were required to design and manufacture the dielet, which would measure only 100 microns by 100 microns (0.004 inch by 0.004 inch) in length and width. The third and final phase of the program now about to begin seeks to demonstrate the SHIELD concept of operation in an electronics supply-chain environment.

Like your highway electronic toll pass and other passive RFID tags the SHIELD dielet does not contain its own power source; instead it is inductively powered by the probe which identifies the transponder and reads the embedded information. The probe then relays encrypted information to an app on the smartphone to which it is attached, and is connected via the internet with a database to confirm the dielet’s serial number. The phone would also read the dielet’s GPS location to make sure the chip is where it is supposed to be.

By way of review the dielet contains the following features:

  • A complete, compact, on-board key encryption engine.
  • A hardware root-of-trust cryptographic key storage which is prohibitively expensive and time-consuming to reverse-engineer. The cryptographic key never leaves the SHIELD dielet. The message will be decrypted using the cryptographic key stored in a secure server database.
  • A physically-fragile but electrically-robust structure embedded in the host component's electronic packaging.
  • Unpowered, passive sensors that record attempted compromises to the authenticator dielet and potentially other operations on the overall packaged assembly such as soldering or de-soldering.
  • Inductive or RF communication and power to allow contactless operation.

The smartphone also plays an important part of another anti-counterfeiting strategy, one that makes use of the two-dimensional aspects of graphene to generate a singular ID tag that may be scanned by the phone’s camera. Graphene is a one-atom thick hexagonal lattice of carbon atoms; as a consequence it is known as a 2D material. When illuminated, tiny imperfections shine causing the graphene to emit light. The sample of colors emitted corresponds to a distinctive association of atoms within the material and is unique only to that small section of material.

This light can be measured as a signal. By scanning the tag with a smartphone the signal can then be turned into a number sequence and a user can match the 2D tag with the manufacturer's database and determine whether it is real or fake. The tag can be turned off at any point if a product is reported lost or stolen.

The ID tags, which are 1/1000th the width of a human hair and are said to cost about a penny to produce rely on atomic imperfections, making them all but impossible to copy, clone or simulate.

The patented technology is called Quantum-ID (Q-ID) and it uses the fact that electrons can only have very specific energies when their motion is restricted at the atomic scale. The exact value of these allowed energies is sensitive to atomic scale imperfections. The scanning device will generate IDs using a small semiconductor diode designed around this principle.

In an ordinary conducting wire, energies of electrons can take any value as they are free to move. When their motion is restricted, by energy barriers such as crystal lattices, electrons take up specific energies. This is called quantum confinement and it changes slightly each time a diode is made, which means every device produces a unique signature.

The invention was made possible through pioneering work on graphene led by Professors Robert Young and Utz Roedig from Lancaster University. Prof. Young is an experimental physicist working on practical applications of quantum technologies; he holds a Chair in Physics at Lancaster, and is Chief Scientist at the spin-out company Quantum Base. Roedig is Professor of Networked Embedded Systems within the School of Computing and Communications at Lancaster University.

Their work was displayed recently at the Royal Society’s Summer Season Science Exhibition (held Tuesday July 4 through Sunday July 9 and featuring 22 exhibits of hands-on UK science) under the title of “A Future Without Fakes.” Visitors were asked to attempt to replicate the Lancaster University experiments and discover how difficult it is to clone the technology at the atomic scale by building their own model of an imperfect graphene sheet. The fastest cloners won one of 60 BBC micro:bits, pocket-sized codeable computer for kids. It is an educational platform well-suited for learning the basics of coding and getting started with embedded computing.

In fact, however, one of the graphene-based security tags contains around one thousand-trillion atoms (1015 or 1,000,000,000,000,000). The researchers claim it would take a scanning probe microscope roughly the age of the universe to produce an identical clone of a tag. Indeed they brought a scanning probe microscope, which can be used to move atoms around, to the exhibition to help demonstrate atomic-scale uniqueness and that to clone these devices you'd effectively have to measure them atom-by-atom.

Quantum-ID tags together with the related application are expected to be commercially available in the first half of 2018.

Murray Slovick

Murray Slovick

Murray Slovick is Editorial Director of Intelligent TechContent, an editorial services company that produces technical articles, white papers and social media posts for clients in the semiconductor/electronic design industry. Trained as an engineer, he has more than 20 years of experience as chief editor of award-winning publications covering various aspects of consumer electronics and semiconductor technology. He previously was Editorial Director at Hearst Business Media where he was responsible for the online and print content of Electronic Products, among other properties in the U.S. and China. He has also served as Executive Editor at CMP’s eeProductCenter and spent a decade as editor-in-chief of the IEEE flagship publication Spectrum.

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