10 minutes with...Dr Matthew Murray

Materials World magazine
,
2 Jun 2015

Dr Matthew Murray speaks to Natalie Daniels about his award-winning research into anti-counterfeit glass technology. 

Tell us what you have been working on.

We are a photonics research group at the University of Leeds. Our main emphasis in recent years has been on developing a technique called ultra-fast laser plasma implantation (ULPI). This is where we take a standard type of glass material, using either silica or silicate, and use an ultra-fast laser to cause ablation from a target glass on a range of different materials. To the eye, the ablation would look a lot like an aerosol that is driven upwards away from the target surface. Around 70mm above that you have a substrate and the thing you’re ablating will stick on the surface of that substrate. This technique is born out of pulse laser deposition. 

What results have been produced?

We have done a whole barrage of analysis from RBS, XPS etching process, cross-section analysis and observed a mixing of the substrate material and the deposited material, which forms a glass layer. We place a sense mask inbetween the target and the plasma going onto the substrate to get an imprinting pattern, much like a Banksy picture. We can then draw in a whole bunch of circuit arrays, architectures and wave-guides. We can also make active and passive photonic devices, something that can’t be done without a whole series of different processing technologies. This technology is considered mainly for glass toughening, for example on mobile phone screens – we are able to put concentration ions well above the solubility limit of traditional silica or silicate glass and still achieve the mechanical materials properties necessary to exceed that of ion-exchange. 

How could this be applied?

We have explored the idea of using the technology as a marker. You could put the material in and then create an optical recipe using specific ions and compositions of ratios, and then use that as a marker to distinguish it from one product to another. We have created a whole spreadsheet of different ratios and compositions in order to achieve specific markings. This is where the technique plays a role in the glass industry. Currently, the industry has a massive counterfeit problem. In the USA, it is estimated that 10% of fragrances are counterfeit. To solve this, we can use our marker to brand the glass in a way that is unique and almost impossible to replicate. 

The scale of the problem is very much kept behind closed doors but it is a genuine issue that needs addressing and the industry recognises that. We believe what we have is one of the only things that can robustly secure the glass bottle industry, because there isn’t really another method for creating or modifying the glass or material without risking damage to it. The other area we are interested in is aerospace – there has been evidence of counterfeit items being used in windows,  for example, and if they are not at correct specification it could endanger life. 

How do you plan on using the investment money?

We were awarded £30,000 to develop the technology further. We have allocated some to an upgrade of our current processing system. Our upgrade is a bespoke holder that can hold a full-scale glass bottle, so this is about developing demonstrations that we can show to industry. We will then implant one of these visual markers – it could be put through a mask to get a company’s logo or a particular emblem they want and works as an added layer of security against counterfeiting. We have already demonstrated feature sizes down to around 10mm. Much like a stencil, you just spray it over the top. This is just a blanket spray and a highly resolved stainless steel mask design, which is made through standard machining and laser cutting.

What challenges do you face over the next few years? 

The biggest challenge is taking the technology and putting it into a manufacturing line. We are partnering with a glass bottle producer to do this. We are really keen to get that started. It is going to be a small pilot plant and then that will move into a full-scale system, but no doubt it will take a lot of work to get there. Currently, this is scheduled for early next year. The bottle holder technology, however, as an early-stage pilot plant will be coming into place around the end of June 2015. 

What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs developing new technologies? 

The big thing is to never give up – you will get a lot of rejections and negative feedback, but if you believe in it that is all that matters. Eventually the right person will notice it in some shape or form. A lot of the time these things can die off because people lose interest, but there are resources out there to help with commercialising technology. Don’t just sit behind your desk, go out and speak to people. It’s about being motivated and driving yourself and your technology forward.                                                                       

For more information on the project, visit ultramatis.com