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Hidden RFID tags could mean end of bar-codes and lines at the checkout


March 19, 2010

RFID tags printed through a new roll-to-roll process could replace bar codes and make checking out of a store a snap (Image: Gyou-Jin Cho/Sunchon National University)

RFID tags printed through a new roll-to-roll process could replace bar codes and make checking out of a store a snap (Image: Gyou-Jin Cho/Sunchon National University)

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Newly developed radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology could usher in the era of checkout line-free shopping. The inexpensive, printable transmitter can be invisibly embedded in packaging offering the possibility of customers walking a cartload of groceries or other goods past a scanner that would read all the items at once, total them up and charge the customer’s account while adjusting the store’s inventory. More advanced versions could even collect all the information about the contents of a store in an instant, letting a retailer know where every package is at any time.

Researchers from Rice University working in collaboration with a team led by Gyou-jin Cho at Sunchon National University in Korea, developed the new technology which is based on a carbon-nanotube-infused ink for ink-jet printers first developed in the Rice lab of James Tour. 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, 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. They are being used to identify and track everything from farm animals to shipping containers and passports to library books. But to date RFID tags have been largely silicon-based. Paper or plastic tags printed as part of a package would cut costs dramatically and the roll-to-roll technique, which uses a gravure process rather than inkjet printers, could replace the barcodes that currently appear on just about everything we buy.

The researchers have already developed a three-step process to print one-bit tags, including the antenna, electrodes and dielectric layers on plastic foil. Work is underway on 16-bit tags that would hold a more practical amount of information and be printable on paper as well.

The researchers say the RFIDs are practical because they are passive. The tags power up when hit by radio waves at the right frequency and return the information they contain. "If there's no power source, there's no lifetime limit. When they receive the RF signal, they emit," Tour said.

There are several hurdles to commercialization. First, the device must be reduced to the size of a bar code, about a third the size of the current device. Second, its range must increase.

"Right now, the emitter has to be pretty close to the tags, but it's getting farther all the time," he said. "The practical distance to have it ring up all the items in your shopping cart is a meter. But the ultimate would be to signal and get immediate response back from every item in your store – what's on the shelves, their dates, everything.

"At 300 meters, you're set – you have real-time information on every item in a warehouse. If something falls behind a shelf, you know about it. If a product is about to expire, you know to move it to the front – or to the bargain bin."

Tour allayed concerns about the fate of nanotubes in packaging. "The amount of nanotubes in an RFID tag is probably less than a picogram. That means you can produce one trillion of them from a gram of nanotubes – a miniscule amount. Our HiPco reactor produces a gram of nanotubes an hour, and that would be enough to handle every item in every Walmart.

"In fact, more nanotubes occur naturally in the environment, so it's not even fair to say the risk is minimal. It's infinitesimal."

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

i had an idea if you put very slim rfid tag on a bullet cartridge and a rfid reader in a gun, maybe we can finally create a ammo counter?

bio-power jeff

Other uses that come to mind are the tracking/monitoring of how food packaging is discarded. So if packaging is discarded incorrectly (not recycled) a waste management company can easily identify what items can be recycled in a pile of garbage... or use the technology to understand the origin of packaging when it has been disposed irresponsibly - like on the side of the road. As garbage is picked up, the RFID tag will carry who purchased the item and from where...

Jason León

If the range of 300 meters is achievable, maybe everything that ever gets stolen (computers, cameras, solar panels) can be found and the criminals can be shot (or put in jail. Shooting would be better.)


Not really one that usually goes down the \"stop, I need my privacy\" road, but this just begs to be abused.

300 meter range. Ok, just drive down the street with an RFID reader to determine what products are in every house in a neighborhood. Less than 5 minutes and the uses are endless!

Targeted advertising, drive down the street dropping flyers in mailboxes based on existing products in houses - determined and printed in real-time. Example: if a house has a pregnency test in it drop off an ad for diapers. Imagine the parents surprise, and what the teen girl will say!

Check for possible criminals. Drive down the street \"looking\" for guns. A house has a lot of them and a crime has been committed with a gun nearby lately? Get a warrant and search for evidence! After all, the witness said the suspect was wearing a leather jacket and the RFID scan shows a leather jacket in the house. Oh, get one for these other four houses while you are at it, they have leather jackets too.

Looking for a new TV or a way to make a quick buck? Drive through a neighborhood and see what is \"available.\" A short drive and you will know what house to hit up for products. Nope, no security system was bought, and both adults clothes are of a \"business\" nature so there should be nobody around when you come by mid-morning. No pet food detected, and kids clothes were sized for Junior High. Low risk, and you have picked that brand of door lock and safe before with no problems.

On the bright side, it should be easy to figure out which neighbor has your ladder!


@CeridianMN, privacy is one major concern. One would have to figure out if the tags could be disabled. The shopping for things to steal is no different than driving around on garbage day. These tags would be printed/installed on packaging. Just be careful not to put all your fancy expensive TV and electronic boxes out on the curve and no one should suspect you have anything above the rest worth stealing.

Martin Lépine

\"More advanced versions could even collect all the information about the contents of a store in an instant, letting a retailer know where every package is at any time.\"

I just saw a news report on the news a few hours ago about some Portuguese company that developed such a system. The system knew how many products were on a shelf and could also give a warning when items were misplaced.

I assumed this was all done via RFID although they didn\'t specify.

Can\'t remember the name of the system or company though...

Tozé Soares

I don\'t live my life worrying about being watched by the government . BUT ever since 911 we have lost more and more of our personal rights then ever before in history . The paranoid populas say well as long as it makes us safer . This new packaging gives them one more way to watch . California.....OBD111 , Drivers Licences.....transmit everything , Passports..... Transmit everything , Credit Cards.....Transmit Everything . When is everyone going to wake up and say no more ? When they finally have us all Chipped so they know were we are at all times ?

Facebook User

What this doesn\'t address is in almost every grocery cart there are many articles with no packaging. Think of Bananas, apples and almost all other produce.

Similarly anything sold in bulk doesn\'t have a label a package just a bag on which you attach a label with a number. The bag has to be weighed before it can be priced.

This kind of unthinking article spoils the excellent job you normally do.


There would be no privacy issue with the RFID tags themselves. It would simply transmit a code to the receiver. The privacy violation would occur when the database is stolen from the retailer, etc. Without the database specifying what each tag is attached to, the tags have no useable data. On the other hand....you could get an RFID reader and make your own database of the tags on items you purchased. Then you could find your stolen items, find which neighbor borrowed your ladder, find your missing sock....IOW, you must know what each tag is attached to, or you have no useable info. If you\'re really paranoid....microwave your items for a second or two, and it\'s toast.


The big brother society is upon us disguised as the nanny society, \"because it\'s for everyone\'s good\". The majority of the immigrants we having coming to the USA these days come from a hierarchical society where the government is the ultimate power with divine right. The more this happens the closer we get to a revolution, ya people will just right that off as paranoia but it\'s coming.

The government is starting by imposing a health care system on us they we don\'t want, they don\'t care it\'s just a way to start controlling us.


make that minuscule.

maj den


just one step closer to do away with another job. low income thought it is . cashier! How long before all retail cashiers are replaced by self checkout kiosks


for all of you (us) who post concerns about too much govt control etc, i have to ask two questions... 1) do you think govt has awarded itself so much power over us that we don\'t have a chance in hell to stop/reverse that process, and 2) what are you doing or planning to do about it? thanks fer lis\'nin\' seekertom


Shut up and get back to work, SLAVES! You are nothing but servants to your corporate overlords! You will be tagged and tracked and you will like it! If you go to the airport, you and your girlfriends, wives and daughters will be electronically strip searched by uniformed perverts! Your most intimate phone calls will be recorded and screened for objectionable content. And don\'t even think this will be as far as it goes. Your vote means nothing and your choices are an illusion. You will keep voting for the same fascist dictator with blue or red used to delude you into thinking you made a difference. You didn\'t. That voting booth is just a pacifier. Object to your treatment? You will be labeled a traitor.


I remember my paranoid grandfather bemoaning the roll out of the ZIP codes... shees. Same old paranoia.

Do you really think anyone cares about YOU, and your stuff? Really?


It will likely never work for entire stores. Sure it\'s perhaps possible, but anything I\'ve ever seen that is radio (RF) usually becomes erratic in transmitting beyond 100 feet. Now I know there are devices that transmit for miles, but what do you need? That\'s right, you need power and the antennas. These are little bitty RF tags. Anything that has a range bigger than 100 feet is usually a walkie talkie, cell phone etc etc, and they are bigger devices with batteries in them, not little tiny RF tags. Very small receivers can be made, but transmitters are difficult. Also it would most erratic in giant warehouses like Home DePot, Walmart etc. Steel beams, steel shelving, walls, other RF disturbing equipment. Other than that it has the security and privacy issues associated with it. Yes, it\'s cool for what it already does, but I that the range will only extend so far..


I also don\'t think it will help with thieves because they will learn from it after the first few got busted. They\'d just wear a nice vest that has RF shielding and put that new package of batteries under their jacket and walk out, etc etc, on and on. Or have their pocket lined with a special RF blocking material which already exists of course...


Does anybody know how they separate all the signals that come to the receiver at once when they activate a number of rfids, for example in a grocery cart, or in an entire store? It has to a serious mix-up problem. One could have directed activation beams and/or rfids with different time-delays, I guess, but it would be interesting to see how it\'s done.

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