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  • 1. INNOVATIONS M ore than 22 million visitors attended The Allure of the Small the Expo 2005 World’s Fair in Aichi, Even before this size breakthrough, RFID tags KEY CONCEPTS Japan. Not one got in with a bogus (combining chips with antennas) were being ■ Radio-frequency identifi- ticket. The passes were practically impossible to touted as a revolutionary force in the supply cation (RFID) tags, an elec- forge because each harbored a tiny RFID (radio- chain. Despite costing more than bar codes, tronic alternative to bar frequency identification) chip — just 0.4 milli- they are seen as a more efficient alternative to codes, are becoming meter (mm) on a side and 0.06 mm thick— that those familiar line patterns; a good RFID tag increasingly common. They mark shipping pallets and transmitted a unique identification number via does not have to be scanned manually or orient- library books, for example, radio waves to a scanner at the gates. ed in a certain way to be readable. Major retail- and are key to remote toll- Now Hitachi, the maker of that chip, is aim- ers such as Wal-Mart have introduced them in paying systems. ing even smaller. Last year it announced a work- recent years with an eye to saving billions on ing version of a chip only 0.05 mm on a side and inventory and labor costs. Other growing appli- ■ Hitachi, which already produces a tiny chip for 0.005 mm thick. Almost invisible, this prototype cations include electronic toll collection, public use in such tags, has has one sixty-fourth the area yet incorporates the transit passes and passports; some people have announced a prototype for same functions as the one in the Expo tickets. Its even implanted the devices in their hands to an almost invisible chip. minuteness, which will allow it to be embedded allow easy access to home and computer. in ordinary sheets of paper, heralds an era in But Hitachi’s main goal for the new chip is ■ The company intends for the new chip to be incor- which almost anything can be discreetly tagged use in anticounterfeiting technology. It could be porated into high-value and read by a scanner that it need not touch. embedded in high-value vouchers such as secu- vouchers — such as gift In Tokyo the chip’s designer, Mitsuo Usami of rities, concert tickets, gift certificates and cash. certificates, tickets and Hitachi’s Central Research Laboratory, holds up Usami and his colleagues believe that the small- securities — to thwart a small vial of liquid, points to a swirl of particles er the chip, the more easily it can be seamlessly counterfeiters. inside it and smiles. They glitter like stardust in buried. “As sophisticated high-tech gear be- TIM HORNYAK —The Editors the afternoon sunlight. “This is the smallest chip comes cheaper and cheaper, it’s easier to forge of its kind in the world,” he enthuses. things made out of paper,” Usami says. “Even 68 SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN February 2008 © 20 08 SCIENTIFIC AMERIC AN, INC.
  • 2. Radio-frequency identification tags label all kinds of inventoried goods and speed commuters through toll plazas. Now tiny RFID components are being developed with a rather different aim: thwarting counterfeiters By Tim Hornyak MITSUO USAMI of Hitachi shows off a vial containing thousands of the minuscule chips (black specks) he invented for use in radio- frequency identification (RFID) tags. though e-money is getting popular, bank notes through a handset. Usami imagined a network are still very convenient.” of tiny RFID chips and servers: RFID chips Like other “passive” RFID chips, the one would be attached to small devices and would that was used at the Aichi Expo — known as the essentially be empty except for a unique identi- µ-Chip (pronounced “mew chip”) — operates ty number that would be conveyed to a server. simply and requires no batteries or power sup- Having received a valid number, the server ply. When it is embedded in an item along with would provide the various functions a person an attached antenna (usually a filamentlike might want to use. The notion is similar to strip), it will respond to 2.45-gigahertz micro- “cloud computing” of today, in which applica- waves from a scanner by reflecting back a tions that would otherwise be stored on an in- unique 128-bit ID number stored in its read- dividual’s computer reside elsewhere and are ac- only memory (ROM). The scanner then checks cessed through the Internet. the number against a database — which can be Usami therefore turned his attention to cre- anywhere in the world— to immediately authen- ating an RFID chip that would be small enough ticate the item containing the chip. to incorporate in anything. To be marketable, it Hitachi says the µ-Chip can be used to iden- also had to be inexpensive, simple and secure. tify “trillions of trillions” of objects, because He already knew something about developing the 128-bit architecture affords an almost infi- diminutive chips. Earlier in the 1990s he had nite number of digit combinations: 1038. Each designed an ultrathin telephone card that was POWDER CHIP surface is shown at unique ID number is meaningless in itself, but embedded with a microchip instead of having a roughly 800 times its true size. when matched to a database entry it will call up magnetic strip, because the chip could provide COURTESY OF HITACHI LTD. CENTRAL RESEARCH LABORATORY whatever information the user has assigned to security through encryption. The embedded the chip. The smaller chip under development, chip was 4 mm on a side and 0.25 mm thick. officially called the Powder LSI chip, also stores But Usami wanted to go smaller. First he had a 128-bit identifier. (“LSI” stands for “large- to figure out the minimum functions a chip scale integrated.”) would need to perform. He turned to colleague Both the µ-Chip and the powder version Kazuo Takagi, a computer security specialist at grew out of a vision Usami, a veteran circuit en- Hitachi’s Systems Development Laboratory, for gineer, sketched out after seeing an ad for the help. After the two discussed the problem at “i-mode” cell phones that Japanese telecom gi- length, Usami decided that using just a 128-bit ant NTT introduced in 1999. These pioneering ID number would enable him to keep the design devices allowed users to access the Internet very simple yet still provide a very high number w w w. S c i A m . c o m SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN 69 © 20 08 SCIENTIFIC AMERIC AN, INC.
  • 3. of digit combinations. At the same time, the ap- [SCENARIO] proach would ensure security because the infor- mation stored in the read-only memory would A Likely Use for Powder Chips be unchangeable. He also stripped out all ines- Hitachi‘s bare-bones, powder RFID chip could sentials, leaving behind, aside from the ROM, a be embedded in money, securities, tickets and simplified radio-frequency circuit (to interact such to thwart counterfeiters. Imagine a clerk with the antenna), a rectifying circuit (to man- age current flow) and a clock circuit (to syn- chronize the chip’s activities and coordinate them with a scanner). MINUTENESS of powder chips is Ironically, Usami’s biggest challenge in real- evident in a micrograph show- izing a shrunken microchip was nontechnical. ing a single hair from a Japa- Then, as now, conventional chip development nese woman surrounded by sili- favored ever increasing memory and function- con bits the size of those chips. ality, so Usami was swimming against the cur- 7 85.9 rent with his stripped-down design. Hitachi’s business division was deeply opposed, wanting the chip to incorporate rewritable encryption features. Without the division’s financial sup- port, his idea would never get off the drawing board. But an unexpected white knight intervened. Shojiro Asai, then general manager of Hitachi’s R&D Group, recognized the project’s potential. 00 $1 He said he would fund prototype production of Scanner what became the µ-Chip (named for the Greek letter in the micron symbol, µm) on the condi- tion that Usami recover all costs. Offering the compact area. Electron beam lithography lays chip for counterfeit protection did the trick. Its down circuit patterns more slowly than photo- success at the Aichi Expo in 2005 convinced lithography does, because it generates patterns Hitachi to allow Usami to keep shrinking his serially instead of in parallel. Hitachi, though, creation. developed a method that produces powder chips GREG M CCARTNEY Prime Light Photo (Hornyak); COURTESY OF HITACHI LTD. CENTRAL RESEARCH LABORATORY ( powder chips) 60 times faster than the µ-Chip is made. Making Powder RFID tags typically consist of chips and ex- Powder chips have essentially the same compo- ternal antennas, and the same is true of the µ- nents as the µ-Chip, but these are snuggled into Chip. For certain applications, though, µ-Chips a smaller space. One key to the extra miniatur- and the powder form will need an internal an- ization was employing what is called 90-nano- tenna, one embedded right on the chip. But meter silicon-on-insulator (SOI) technology, a those reduce how far away a scanner can be. The method of advanced chipmaking pioneered by maximum scanning distance for Hitachi’s com- [THE AUTHOR] IBM and now being used by others. SOI makes mercial µ-Chips with external antennas is cur- processors that perform better and consume less rently 30 cm (about a foot), and the range of the power than those produced by conventional powder prototype is the same — short but accept- methods because it isolates transistors with an able for most applications involving money or insulator. The insulator both reduces the absorp- securities. The company is doing research aimed tion of electrical energy into the surrounding at extending the range of both external and in- medium— boosting signal strength— and keeps ternal antennas. The application will determine the transistors separate. Separation in this way the range required: money or securities would prevents interference between transistors and require only a few millimeters or a centimeter, allows them to be packed more closely together, whereas package sorting would require a range Tim Hornyak is a freelance science which makes it possible for chip size to shrink. of about one meter. The firm is also working on writer based in Tokyo. He writes Electron beam lithography helped as well. “anticollision” technology that would allow the on Japanese technology and is author of Loving the Machine: The This technology wields a focused beam of elec- simultaneous reading of multiple chips, such as Art and Science of Japanese Robots trons to produce a unique wiring pattern that when goods sit together on a store shelf or are (Kodansha International, 2006). represents a chip’s individual ID number in a jumbled in a shopping basket. 70 SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN February 2008 © 20 08 SCIENTIFIC AMERIC AN, INC.
  • 4. RELATIVE SIZES A standard chip in a “passive” wanting to verify that a $100 bill is real. The clerk (1–3) and send it to a database of bill numbers (4), RFID tag (one that has no would pass the bill near a scanner. The scanner which would indicate whether the money was battery) affixed to a library would detect the unique ID number stored in the chip legitimate (5). book might measure one to two millimeters on a side Remote database containing valid Scanner serial numbers for $100 bills (like the cross section of lead in an unsharpened number 2 pencil). Hitachi’s µ-Chip is ● Database 5 reports back Matched less than a quarter that size A. . . . . . . number in area, and the powder chip ACCEPT BI38524711A is some 64 times as tiny as C. . . . . . . the µ-Chip. ● Scanner submits 4 Magnification ● Scanner sends 1 information D. . . . . . . Chip in query to chip Antenna ● ID number to scanner 3 Radio waves convey to database E. . . . . . . library tag Actual size: 1 mm  1 mm  0.18 mm Power circuitry µ-Chip CHIP COMPONENTS Actual size: Control ROM Power circuitry: 0.4 mm  0.4 mm  0.06 mm circuitry ● Chip 2 activates Combined radio-frequency (RF) and rectifying circuit receives and reflects signals and manages current Powder chip Control circuitry: Synchronizes activity on the chip and with the scanner Actual size: 0.05 mm  0.05 mm  0.005 mm Read-only memory (ROM): Powder chip Stores immutable identification number For visibility, the representa- tions above are about Diagram is schematic and not to scale. 10 times actual size. Little Brother? permarket chain Tesco tested selling Gillette ra- Although putting chips into money is a logical zor blades packaged with RFID tags able to application for minute RFID chips, chipped trigger a hidden camera if theft were attempted. cash could exacerbate privacy concerns sur- Although privacy advocates may recognize the rounding the use of RFID technology. It raises shipping and supply benefits of RFID, they want the specter, for instance, of an unscrupulous to be able to remove or turn off the tags once an person scanning the contents of another’s wal- item has been purchased. let from far away. Choosing tags requiring a Usami thinks the potential benefits of RFID short-range scanner, such as the readers in ATM outweigh the risks. “For example, embedding machines, would limit such intrusion, however. sidewalk tiles or crosswalks with RFID tags And the criminal would also need access to the could help autonavigation systems in wheel- right server and database for the information to chairs. This is important especially in Japan, have any meaning. which has an aging society.” Even as paper use The infinitesimal size of the Powder LSI diminishes, tiny RFID chips will come in handy chips under development also helps to conjure in situations where size, access and complexity sci-fi scenarios. Could police, say, spray the are constraining factors. As an example, Hita- ➥ MORE TO powder on a crowd of rioters and then trace chi envisions using the powder chips to reduce EXPLORE them afterward through security scanners dis- the time it takes to install and verify complex RFID: A Key to Automating Every- tributed along roads or in public transit? Hita- electrical wiring systems at companies, facto- thing. Roy Want in Scientific Ameri- can, Vol. 290, No. 1, pages 56–65; chi asserts that it is infeasible to deploy the ries and other facilities. Cables and terminals January 2004. chips by sprinkling them — they must be at- would be equipped with chips so workers could tached to antennas to function. And, Usami quickly check them against a database and the Hitachi Achieves 0.05-mm Square says, “many civic groups have developed guide- related schematics instead of relying on lengthy Super Micro RFID Tag, “Further lines to protect privacy with RFID. A funda- visual inspections. Size Reductions in Mind.” mental guideline for this technology is that it But if privacy advocates have concerns about Available at http://techon. MELISSA THOMAS nikkeibp.co.jp/english/NEWS_ not be used surreptitiously.” chips becoming harder and harder to find, that EN/20070220/127959/ The Guardian newspaper in London, though, particular fear is real: Usami says the miniatur- has already documented a case in which the su- izing trend will continue. ■ RFID Journal: www.rfidjournal.com w w w. S c i A m . c o m SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN 71 © 20 08 SCIENTIFIC AMERIC AN, INC.