SDSM&T security center grew out of solar experiment
By Dirk Lammers
A new security printing and anti-counterfeiting research program based at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology grew out of an effort to develop next-generation solar cells.
Jon Kellar, a professor of materials and metallurgical engineering with the School of Mines, said he and USD chemistry professor Stanley May were experimenting with luminescent solar printing three years ago when a graduate student used the technology to print a QR code, the black-and-white square matrix barcodes used to identify websites and products.
The researchers realized that having a QR code that’s hidden in ambient lighting but is visible with a nearinfrared laser would be of great interest to companies looking to protect their brands.
Kellar said the idea has since drawn overwhelming interest, and May was asked to present the findings to the Secret Service for possible use in currency. The state of South Dakota is providing $300,000 in startup money to create the Center for Security Printing and Anti-Counterfeiting Technology, which will focus its efforts mostly on consumer and corporate use.
“We really haven’t pursued security printing on money,” he said. “We’re more looking at brand protection. There are a lot of counterfeit goods being produced and companies are interested in ways of securing their supply chains.”
The original team of Kellar and May had the expertise in ink formulation, materials and chemistry, but they’ve since added electrical engineers, computer scientists and a sociologist from South Dakota State University who will look at the human factors of invisible QR codes.
“They’re only useful if they’re used,” Kellar said. “Consumers are interested in verifying authenticity.”
The center is working with pharmaceutical experts at SDSU to print codes on pills using a non-toxic ink.
Paul Turman, the regents’ vice president for research and economic development, said the center will help develop South Dakota’s capacity in advanced manufacturing and materials and information technology. It keys off South Dakota’s 2020 Vision, a science and innovation blueprint for future research and economic development efforts, he said.
Kellar said he “didn’t even know what a QR was” when he and May began the ink experiments, but he finds serendipity in the project’s change of direction.
“It’s a classic case of fundamental research — you don’t know where it’ll take you,” he said.