The Butterfly Effect: How Blue Morpho Wings Could Stop Counterfeiting

For more than a decade, I’ve been fascinated by biomimicry, the way engineers take cues from animals to make airplanes fly faster or submarines glide more efficiently.

In Vancouver, British Columbia, we found one of the most advanced biomimicry yet, with some seriously money-saving ways it can be used.

Every year in the U.S., about $270 million in counterfeit cash is seized by the government. That’s a tiny fraction of the $300 billion in fake money believed to circulate domestically each year. But it’s a growing problem. As scanning and printing technology advance, officials with the U.S. Secret Service say the potential for counterfeiting is rising, especially for big denominations like $50 and $100 bills. Governments abroad are also concerned; they often have less advanced money-printing techniques and less regulation over fake bills.

Enter the Blue Morpho butterfly: a species with unique qualities that might hold the clue for fighting counterfeiting.

The Morpho has a stunning metallic blue color, but it’s not made from the usual ways colors are formed in nature, through pigments or dyes. Instead its color comes from structural patterns—tiny patterns of microscopic holes that reflect blue light to our eyes.

As an example of how microscopic patterns can reflect color, NanoTech recreated a one square centimeter portrayal of National Geographic's Afghan Girl photo. Photo by Spencer Millsap / NGM Staff
As an example of how microscopic patterns can reflect color, NanoTech recreated a one square centimeter version of a famous Geographic image. Photo by Spencer Millsap / NGM Staff

We stopped in at NanoTech Security, a company trying to recreate those microscopic hole patterns to use on currency of the future. Instead of printing images with ink on paper, the idea is to press a pattern of tiny holes that would reflect a certain pattern. It would be virtually impossible to counterfeit without some advanced equipment and a clean room with fewer than 100 parts per million of floating particulates (most public places have more than one million parts per million).

Clint Landrock, NanoTech’s developer, showed us around a lab he uses at Simon Fraser University. The process to create advanced patterns for currency is completed on such a small scale that simply going into the clean room required us to remove our shoes and wipe down our cameras. NanoTech has created a mold as an example, and has talked with some governments around the world to collaborate ways to use the technology.

In preparation for our visit, Landrock even had on hand a recreation of the iconic Afghan girl, a photo by Steve McCurry that was first published on National Geographic‘s cover in 1985. “We wanted to show that we can create something rich in color without using any pigments or dyes at all,” Landrock told us. Color us impressed.