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Nano-based Printed RFID Will Reduce the Cost of Printing Tags

March 25, 2010
Long checkout lines could be history with a new printable transmitter that can be invisibly embedded in packaging. This new development would allow customers to walk through with their trolley of groceries, whilst a scanner reads the goods, totals them up and charges the amount to the customer's account whilst adjusting the store's inventory—all in a matter of seconds. More advanced versions could collect all the information about the contents of a store in an instant, letting a retailer know where every package is at any time.
 
The technology is based on a carbon-nanotube-infused ink for ink-jet printers first developed in the Rice lab of James Tour, the T.T. and W.F. Chao Chair in Chemistry as well as a professor of mechanical engineering and materials science and of computer science. The ink is used to make thin-film transistors, a key element in radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags that can be printed on paper or plastic.
 
"We are going to a society where RFID is a key player," said Cho, a professor of printed electronics engineering at Sunchon National University in Korea, who expects the technology to mature in five years. Cho and his team are developing the electronics as well as the roll-to-roll printing process that, he said, will bring the cost of printing the tags down to a penny apiece and make them ubiquitous.
 
RFID tags are almost everywhere already. The tiny electronic transmitters are used to identify and track products and farm animals. They're in passports, library books and devices that let drivers pass through tollbooths without digging for change.
 
The technology behind RFID goes back to the 1940s, when Léon Theremin, inventor of the self-named electronic music instrument heard in so many '50s science fiction and horror movies came up with a spy tool for the Soviet Union that drew power from and retransmitted radio waves.
 
RFID itself came into being in the 1970s and has been widely adopted by the Department of Defense and industry to track shipping containers as they make their way around the world, among many other uses.
 
But RFID tags to date are largely silicon-based. Paper or plastic tags printed as part of a package would cut costs dramatically. Cho expects his roll-to-roll technique, which uses a gravure process rather than ink-jet printers, to replace the bar codes now festooned on just about everything you can buy.
 

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