An edible QR code shoots fake whiskey

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – If you order a shot of whiskey in the future, you might ask the bartender to hold an edible fluorescent silk label that can float in it – even though it’s safe to consume.

This small silk label with a QR code is a security measure that can reveal if the whiskey you want to buy is fake. Simply using a smartphone to scan the tag, which was developed by biomedical engineers at Purdue University and the National Institute of Agricultural Sciences in South Korea, can confirm the drink’s authenticity.

There are, of course, no tags currently being placed in whiskey bottles. But this new anti-counterfeit technology, published in the magazine ACS Central Sciencecould be a step towards not only finding a solution for the alcohol industry, but also tackling fake drugs.

Jungwoo Leem, a postdoctoral research associate, and Young Kim, both of Purdue’s Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering, are part of a global research team that has developed an edible QR code on a tag made from specialized silk that could help consumers identify fake whiskey . (Purdue University photo/John Underwood)

“Some liquid medicines contain alcohol. We wanted to test this in whiskey first because of whiskey’s higher alcohol content,” said Young Kim, associate head of research and an associate professor at Purdue’s Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering† “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 anti-counterfeiting measures ranging from: cyber-physical watermarks into tags made from fluorescent silk proteins. The tags have a code that a consumer or patient can activate with a smartphone to confirm the 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 and will not cause any problems if a person swallows them while drinking a shot of whiskey. The tags did not affect the taste of the whiskey.

Kim and Jungwoo Leem, a postdoctoral research associate, said making the tags involves processing fluorescent silk cocoons from specialized silkworms to create a biopolymer, which can be molded into various patterns to encode the information. You can watch a video demonstration of the tag by Kim and Leem.

“Alcohol sparkles are vulnerable to counterfeiting. There are a lot of fake whiskeys being sold,” Leem says, citing other studies mentioned in the journal article about the economic costs and loss of buying fake alcoholic beverages, including how 18% of adults in the UK experience buying counterfeit alcoholic beverages.

“Counterfeit goods, such as medicines and alcohol, are a major problem around the world. There are countless examples of large quantities of counterfeit drugs being sold around the world that in some cases kill people,” Kim said.

“Online pharmacies sell controlled substances to teens. People can easily buy counterfeit opioids. This work is extremely important for patients and buyers in addressing this issue,” Kim said. “If you have this technology on or in your medications, you can use your smartphone to authenticate. We want to make patients aware of this issue. We want to work with pharmaceutical companies and alcohol producers to help them tackle this problem.”

Kim and Leem placed tags in different brands and price ranges of whiskey (80 proof, 40% alcohol by volume) over a 10-month period and were able to activate the tags and codes continuously with a smartphone app.

One of the ways to expose this problem is to literally shine a light on the tags. The team developed ways and methods to activate the tags by smartphones in different light settings.

Kim said the tags are an additional authentication mechanism for marked security seals on bottles or pills and can help by placing them individually in expensive bottles of alcohol or on expensive drugs.

In addition to Kim and Leem, members of the research team were Hee-Jae Jeon, Yuhyun Ji and Sang Mok Park from Purdue’s Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering; Yunsang Kwak of the Mechanical System Engineering Department at Kumoh National Institute of Technology in South Korea; and Jongwoo Park, Kee-Young Kim and Seong-Wan Kim of the Department of Agricultural Biology of the National Institute of Agricultural Sciences in South Korea. Funding came from the Cooperative Research Program for Agriculture Science and Technology Development (PJ015364) of the Rural Development Administration of the Republic of Korea, the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research (FA2386-17-1-4072), the NIH Technology Accelerator Challenge from the National Institutes of Health and the Trask Innovation Fund at Purdue University. The technology was unveiled to the Purdue Research Foundation Office of Technology Commercialization

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