Butterfly wings provide security at TED2014

Nature-inspired technology used for TED2014 ID badges

As well as keeping crashers out of the conference, they give attendees a tangible piece of an innovation that may become widespread in the future. Credit: James Duncan Davidson, TED via Flickr

As well as keeping crashers out of the conference, new TED conference ID badges give attendees a tangible piece of an innovation that may become widespread in the future. Credit: James Duncan Davidson, TED via Flickr

It looks like a hologram. It flickers like a hologram. But a hologram it is not — it doesn’t even contain pigment. If you attend this year’s TED2014 conference in Vancouver, you will see it on your ID badge, a small panel with the logo “30 years TED” in iridescent orange.

These colorful passes are one of the first applications of recent advances in biomimicry, or the synthetic replication of biological structures. The logo uses technology based on the wing scales of butterflies to foil counterfeiters. Its iridescent flicker makes the colors easy to identify, while the nanofabrication technology behind it would make forgery extremely difficult and expensive.

The technique was developed at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia by Vancouver-based NanoTech Security Corp. TED partnered with NanoTech to create their passes.

“In keeping with TED’s mandate of ‘ideas worth spreading,’ they are always looking for the most up-to-date level of security to incorporate as part of their event,” NanoTech CEO Doug Blakeway told TreeHugger.

As well as keeping crashers out of the conference, they give attendees a tangible piece of an innovation that may become widespread in the future.

From swallowtails to TED tags

Butterflies, along with beetles and peacocks, use a fascinating mechanism to display color. They do not use pigments but rather an intricate structure of cuticle and air, alternating in microscopic layers that, according to Cambridge scientist Mathias Kolle, resemble the inside of an egg carton.

As light bounces off these structures, it creates striking iridescent colors. Researchers at the University of Cambridge began studying swallowtail butterflies several years ago in the hopes that their “structural” color might have anti-counterfeiting applications.

NanoTech reported on such an innovation based on the wing scales of the blue Morpho last June. Using a method similar to the manufacturing of computer chips, a fine-tuned array of nano-holes can be embossed on any surface, including solar cells and fine fabric.

NanoTech’s KolourOptiks structures are 50-300nm in diameter (between a wave of light and a DNA molecule). This gives their TED tags a resolution of 50,000 dpi (dots per inch). “That’s 150 times sharper than Apple’s Retina display,” added Blakeway. Furthermore, production does not require chemicals that degrade the environment, and the colors will not fade.

Images of the technology in development and at work for TED2014

(Sources: Nanotech Security Co. and TED via Flickr)

A butterfly-powered future

The versatility of this embossing method may lead to a wide set of possible applications. Currency is foremost in the minds of several researchers. But a nano-optic redesign is likely unfeasible for American banknotes. Many other countries already use holograms on their bills, making it easy to apply this new technology.

The method could also be used to ensure that passports, pharmaceuticals or designer handbags are genuine.

The butterfly-inspired technology could even lead to more efficient solar cells and water-splitting photocatalysts. These clean energy sources would, in turn, help save the Morpho butterflies’ sensitive rainforest environment.

Nick Clunn
Nick Clunn is a journalist covering the tech beat and an adjunct professor at Montclair State University. He lives in New Jersey, where he had worked as a staff writer for several leading daily newspapers and websites.
Nick Clunn
Nick Clunn
Tags: Entrepreneurship,Tech Culture,Technology