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  - November 28, 2007 -  

RFID News: Are Printable Transistors the Magic Bullet for Mass RFID Adoption?


New Company Kovio Brings New Technology to Market; a Step-changed in Production Costs?



SCDigest Editorial Staff

SCDigest Says:
While it might not be quite as “free” as a printed UPC code on a can of soup, the cost might be a penny or less per tag – opening up a huge array of applications for RFID that cannot be cost justified today.

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For many years, a number of companies have been looking for cheaper alternatives to the processes used to make transistors for RFID and other applications, as well as for RFID antennas.

Two weeks ago, a start-up company called Kovio (Sunnyvale, CA) made public technology it has been quietly developing for several years, based on research work originally performed at MIT University. The company’s technology makes it possible to actually print transistors using commercially available technologies such as high-end commercial ink jet printers. RFID tags are just one of many target applications.

There are a number of companies that have been developing printable transistor technology. The approach is not intended to replace high end transistors and memory devices used in electronics, as the number of transistors possible in a “chip” is orders of magnitude fewer using printing-based technology. But an RFID tag doesn’t require such a high level of horse power. Combined with the barrier of current tag prices to mass adoption in many applications, the low cost printable technique could have a dramatic market impact.




How it Works

Kovio’s specific approach is based on research work done by Joseph Jacobson, a professor at MIT's Media Lab, who founded the company in 2001. That work in turn stemmed in part from research coming out of Stanford in the 1970s. In that research, microscopic balls were created that were black on top, white on the bottom. An electric charge determined which side of the balls rotated upward. With some clever wiring, the balls could be made to form letters and words.

But that research mostly stalled after the initial discoveries. Fast forward two decades later, and Jacobson is experimenting with the idea of creating “electronic paper,” one goal of which was being able to literally print a computer display. But the focus soon changed to transistors, especially RFID.

The key to Kovio’s approach is the ability to develop liquid suspensions – “semiconductor ink” – of inorganic materials such as silicon. The use inorganics is part of what sets Kovio’s approach apart from other printable circuitry technologies. Use of inorganics can improve performance by as much as 1000 times over printed circuits made from organic material such as conducting polymers – and thus make the printable circuitry viable for applications such as RFID.

Using advanced software, these semiconductor inks can be printed by available commercial inkjet printers onto various substrates, including plastic but likely metal foil for use in RFID tags. Just like a multi-color printer with several different cartridges for each color, multiple types of inks would be used: silicon for circuits, nanocrystalline metals for electrodes, insulating inks that surround other components, etc. After printing, the transistor must go through a short curing process.

Enormous Cost Reductions

Kovio estimates that its system requires just 5 percent of the materials and a quarter of the electrical power used in conventional chip-making processes, with equipment that costs just a third as much.

While it might not be quite as “free” as a printed UPC code on a can of soup, the cost might be a penny or less per tag – opening up a huge array of applications for RFID that cannot be cost justified today. Kovio puts about a five-year time frame to meet those kind of cost levels for RFID tags.

It appears Kovio’s technology will first come to market in “smart cards” for public transportation. These would replace the magnetic stripe, disposable cards used by many transit systems today.

While more long lasting smart cards would be preferable to transit operators, the barrier has been cost – as much as $5.00 per card. Kovio estimates it could produce printable smart cards for as low as 5 cents. The company has signed agreements with one company in the US and another in Japan to deliver smart card technology, with projections for shippable products at the end of 2008.

Do you think this printable RFID technology is a major industry breakthrough? Would the availability of one-cent tags cause an explosion in RFID adoption? Are you dubious the technology will work? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback button below.

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