Taking The NanoPulse -- My RFID Tag Is Smaller Than Your RFID Tag

March 6, 2007
Nanotechnology makes RFID tracking smaller, more powerful -- and cheaper.

There are a lot of people excited about RFID tags. You know, Radio Frequency Identification tags, the small tags that transmit radio waves to enable the tracking of items. Manufacturers are turning to RFID to improve supply chain visibility. Wal-Mart hopes to have RFID tags on every shipment to their warehouses. A hospital in New Orleans is using them to track medical equipment. Several airlines have been testing them for luggage tracking -- from Air France-KLM to Delta and United, and now airports in Hong Kong and Las Vegas. And whether you're concerned about the time it takes to find a life-saving device in a hospital or walking out of an airport with all your luggage, the benefits of RFID are obvious. Things don't get lost!

So, if it's such a good idea, what's the hold up with making RFID mainstream? Size, accuracy and cost -- not necessarily in that order. RFID costs have dropped from about $1 apiece to about twenty cents. But that's not enough, is it? By addressing the other two issues -- size and accuracy -- nanotechnology can help solve the price problem. How low can it go? The market is looking at under 1 cent apiece. Possible? Absolutely!

Let's start with how RFID works. Imagine something that looks a little like a 2"x2" decal with an X-shape on it and a tiny dot at the center. The dot is a microchip. The X is the antenna, which, in our example, uses silver as a conductor. With current technology, the effective reach of the device is governed by the size of the antenna. That means more silver is required, increasing size and cost. That's where nanotechnology can help. Nanotechnology could enable a denser layer of silver nanoparticles on a thin film, which would make possible a smaller and thinner antenna that could provide the same (or better) signal. Smaller size, greater functionality, less cost. Now let's throw in durability. Decreasing the size of the antenna can also improve the longevity of the devices Larger, thicker antennae are more susceptible to being bent and broken. In addition, there's an air-tight package around the antenna, which can crack, exposing the antenna silver to oxidizing air. Smaller units offer less room for damage.

And that's only half of the equation. Nanotechnology also goes to work on the computer chips -- making them smaller and less expensive, too. How? Companies in the U.S. and Europe are looking at semi-conducting nanoparticle inks. Imagine how that simplifies chip-making, bringing down the size and cost. The long view? Someday, making chips with nano-inks could be as simple as desktop publishing. Design the chip on-screen and click "print."

When RFID prices get to a penny, where can the market go? Just about anywhere. Tags can go into Fido's collar to help the dog catcher bring him home safe. Soldiers and equipment in the field would never be "off the grid." There's even a grocery cart company that sends RFID-enabled messages to a monitor on the cart as you pass by items in the aisle. In fact, the State of Washington's legislature is considering an "Electronic Bill of Rights." That's a sure sign that RFID is ready to go mainstream. And there's no doubt that nanotechnology is at the core of making it possible.

Washington update: Congress and the Administration welcome NanoBusiness Alliance Public Policy Tour. At the writing of my February column, I was preparing to board an airplane to join over 40 other corporate leaders in Washington, D.C. on the NanoBusiness Alliance's Public Policy Tour. This is my third experience with the tour, and each year I've seen the relationship between the Federal government and industry strengthening.

In every meeting I saw that our leaders truly understands the unlimited potential of nanotechnology and the importance of the U.S. maintaining leadership in the field. They see the opportunity for the private and public sector to work together to develop the science in a reasonable, safe manner.

For industry, it was encouraging to see the great openness to the The Research Competitiveness Act of 2007 that would provide tax credits for company Research and Experimentation costs. Our groups also talked about Environmental, Health and Safety issues to protect us all without stalling growth. And, to mark the successful work that helps assure the Federal government's investment in nanoscience, the NanoBusiness Alliance awarded its inaugural "NanoBusiness Alliance Nanotechnology Pioneer Awards" to Senators George Allen (R-VA) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Representatives Sherwood Boehler (R-NY) and Bart Gordon (D-TN). Both houses, both sides of the aisle. That bodes well for America's global competitiveness, job growth and environmental safety.

Scott E. Rickert is chief executive of Nanofilm, Ltd, located in Valley View, Ohio. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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