How do you determine the essence or truth of a thing? Philosophers have argued about the answer to that question for millennia. I’m not going to address this philosophical issue, but I can tell you how scientists are giving us the power to know exactly what any physical thing really is.
First, let’s think about why you should care what things really are. Whether you know it or not, it’s almost guaranteed that you’ve been defrauded before because you didn’t know exactly what you were buying.
Investigators have shown that high-end computer chips, cotton, clothing, olive oil, handbags, and other products are often swapped for cheap or adulterated replacements by counterfeiters. While these sorts of inferior-quality fakes are irritating, some counterfeits do more than defraud. They endanger lives.
Many counterfeiters target products that are components of larger objects. For example, critical airplane parts require expensive engineering, materials, and manufacturing processes. It’s difficult if not impossible to separate the real deal from the clever counterfeit without laboratory testing, so substandard components can make their way into aircraft.
We don’t know how many people have died from counterfeit part failures, but experts estimate that more than a half million people a year, mostly in the developing world, die because of counterfeit pharmaceuticals. Similarly, bogus fertilizers, insecticides, and herbicides have ruined crops in poor nations where malnutrition and associated diseases already pose serious threats.
An authentic flash memory IC and its counterfeit replica.
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:An_authentic_flash_memory_IC_and_its_counterfeit_replica.png by KiaraskKevin86
There are ways to detect these counterfeits, but the tests are expensive and time consuming, requiring a collection of samples that must be sent to qualified laboratories. Counterfeiters, often part of organized crime rings, know how to circumvent procedures designed to stop them. Once a fake product is in the hands of the end consumer, there’s almost no chance that it will be detected… until something goes wrong.
Thanks to a combination of transformational technologies, this is changing. I’m watching right now as the ability to perform advanced molecular evaluations of products makes its way into the hands of consumers.
The Next Step: Portability
The biggest breakthrough in anti-counterfeiting came a few years ago in the form of invisible botanical DNA barcodes. These codes and unhackable biomarkers can be applied to any physical item, from luxury cotton to pills.
Already, these markers are ending counterfeiting in multiple industries. Even the Pentagon now requires that critical components in military electronics include these unremovable labels.
To verify the authenticity of a marked product, the DNA markers must be sampled and sent to a lab equipped to perform DNA analysis. Managers of supply chains targeted by counterfeiters do this today, but to end counterfeiting completely, the same analytical power to detect fakes would have to be portable, fast, and cheap enough for everyone to use.
Scientists have been working for over 30 years to put the power of advanced laboratories into devices small enough to take anywhere. Their goal is to miniaturize the complex chemical processes used by fully equipped laboratories to identify molecules and compounds.
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lab_on_a_Chip_(7788250170).jpg by National Institute of Standards and Technology
LOC developers turned to microfluidics, the science of reducing large chemical processes to the size of a standard computer chip. To some extent, they succeeded. However, LOCs are still not widely used, because it turned out that precise manipulation of microscopic amounts of chemicals such as reagents and buffers is more difficult and expensive than previously thought.
Graphene changes all that.
Graphene Opens Up New Possibilities
Graphene was first produced in 2004 by University of Manchester scientists who used simple acetate (Scotch) tape to lift single-molecule thick layers of graphene from graphite pencil markings. Just like diamonds and petroleum, graphene is carbon and considered a semi-metal.
Nanotechnologists make graphene using vapor deposition processes common in chip fabrication. A single layer of carbon 1 atoms self-assembles into a hexagonal pattern similar to chicken wire. Though it is the strongest material ever tested, it is also flexible, and a sheet of nearly invisible graphene can be lifted and held in your hand.
For chip designers, graphene’s most remarkable property is probably the fact that it conducts electricity a million times more efficiently than the copper used in common electrical wires. This produces chips so sensitive that they can detect the attachment of a single molecule to a target structure.
Besides graphene’s electrical properties, the “semi-metal” has another characteristic that lends themselves to the manufacturing of biosensor chips. Due to its hexagonal lattice structure, it is easy to anchor a large variety of molecules to graphene.
A recent critical breakthrough in graphene biochip design came out of the University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering, which has designed electronic “tweezers” capable of grabbing specific biomolecules from tiny samples of blood, saliva, or urine.
In practical terms, that means we may finally see cheap, disposable biochips, smaller than postage stamps, capable of sending data through smartphones to the cloud for near-instantaneous analysis. Already, scientists and entrepreneurs are building prototypes that will put forensic-level laboratory analysis in your hands and phones.
The implications are enormous.
The End of Counterfeiting and the New Dawn of Diagnostics
Not only could you check the authenticity of any physical item with an identifying biomarker, making supply chain control open and reliable, common diagnostics will become cheaper and faster too.
Your doctor could run an entire metabolic panel or blood test for a fraction of the current cost, while performing a routine checkup. If needed, tests could be done multiple times in a single day to test for individual reactions to foods, supplements, or drugs.
Last week, I wrote about a report by Germany’s Berlin Institute for Population and Development, which projects that sub-replacement fertility rates will permanently reduce economic growth. There are, in fact, signs that the global economy is cooling.
Graphene biosensors equipped with nano-tweezers are not just a cool new technology. They could help overcome the demographic deficit by reducing economic crime and accelerating next-generation healthcare.
Editor, Transformational Technology Alert
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