Researchers in Germany have come one step closer to realising a dream of manufacturers, retailers and other companies seeking advanced but inexpensive ways to trace products and materials - a cheap chip made of plastic that can be printed on foil the same way a newspaper is printed on paper.
Although PolyIC, a joint venture between Siemens AG and Kurz, isn't claiming to have developed the first-ever integrated circuit made of polymer, it is taking credit for having created the world's fastest plastic chip to date - 600KHz - and having pioneered a technique to print circuits directly onto foils.
"We're still at the beginning of using polymer, an organic material, to mass-produce inexpensive chips that could be used, for instance, as RFID tags, but we're moving steadily ahead," managing director of PolyIC, Wolfgang Mildner, said.
Using its technology, PolyIC plans, next year, to begin production of a plastic 4-bit chip, which could be used for applications such as forgery-proof labeling, according to Mildner. The next step will be a 32-bit chip aimed at applications in the logistics sector.
By 2008, PolyIC hoped to have a chip with a storage capacity of 128 bits and a processing speed of 13.56MHz to comply with radio frequency identification (RFID) standards, Mildner said.
Today's bar code labels, which many companies hope to replace with RFID tags, have a typical storage capacity of 44 bits.
The prototype plastic chips of PolyIC contain at least four layers placed on a foil substrate made of a special type of polyester. The electrodes consist of conductive polymers. Above them is a semiconductive layer made from poly-3 alkylthiophene, followed by an insulating polymer layer and a counter-electrode.
Mildner referred to the process as "a chip evolving on foil and becoming one".
The plastic chips are only a few square centimeters in area and have a thickness of 1 micrometer, while the electrodes and the semiconductor layer account only for a few hundred nanometers of the total.
In the lab printing process, researchers use stamps to print the conductors. Then they coat the foil with the semiconductor and insulator using a type of squeegee technology that is common in the textile-printing industry.
The goal of PolyIC is to produce RFID chips with a price point of $US0.013, compared to the price of silicon-based RFID chips that range between $US0.39 and $US0.65, a spokesperson in Siemens research and development division, Norbert Aschenbrenner, said.
PolyIC was launched after Siemens decided to spin off its plastic chip research activities into the new joint venture with Kurz, which specialises in production of stamping foils, according to Aschenbrenner.
Albrecht von Truchsess, a spokesman for Metro AG, which is at the forefront of deploying RFID technology in the European retail sector, called the PolyIC development "super".
Metro welcomed all technology advances that would help make the price of RFID chips become a non-issue, von Truchsess said.
Since November, 22 suppliers had been delivering products on pallets marked with RFID tags, he said. The goal was to have about 100 suppliers using RFID by the end of this year.
Currently, about 20 of Metro's 1800 stores and distribution centers in Germany were using RFID, according to the spokesperson.
The goal was 250 by year's end, he said.
Metro has more than 2500 retail stores and distribution stores worldwide.