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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 December 2005, 11:21 GMT
Gel battery boost for radio tags
By Lakshmi Sandhana

The new battery technology is expected to be married to radio tags
Japanese company NEC has developed a lightweight, flexible battery that is less than a millimetre thick and can be recharged in half a minute.

It is called the Organic Radical Battery (ORB) and is based on a type of plastic that exists in a gel state.

The gel allows the battery to be extremely pliant, with a thickness of 300 microns.

ORBs could eventually be embedded into devices such as smart cards, wearable computers and intelligent paper.

Currently the battery, when in card form, can be recharged with a card reader device in 30 seconds.

The absence of harmful chemicals typically used in rechargeable batteries also makes it quite environmentally friendly, according to NEC.

Radio tags

The ORB has huge potential when combined with Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags - tiny microchips that hold unique identifier information attached to a small antenna.

RFID tags are now finding wide use to keep track of items in the business supply chain - from the manufacturing floor to the retail outlet.

If you can create a 'smart active label' - a thin label that broadcasts a signal as opposed to passively reflecting back energy from the reader - you could solve many of the readability problems people are struggling with now
Mark Roberti, RFID Journal
RFID tags fall into two categories - the more commonly found "passive" devices only respond to signals sent to it by a tag reader and have a shorter range.

"Active" tags on the other hand can transmit signals and can be read at greater distances but are larger and more expensive since they need a power source.

"If you can create a 'smart active label' - a thin label that broadcasts a signal as opposed to passively reflecting back energy from the reader - you could solve many of the readability problems people are struggling with now," said Mark Roberti, editor of RFID Journal.

"You could potentially put one of these labels on a case of coke in the middle of a pallet of coke and read it. That is not possible with passive tags because the energy from the reader is blocked by the metal."

Public acceptance

While active tags do offer the benefit of being read over greater distances, there are health concerns arising from questions about transmission frequency.

"With a passive tag, the transmissions are limited as the only signal comes from a transmitter/receiver and tend to be spasmodic," said Roger Lewis, editor of RFID Today.

RFID tag
Power is a big issue for RFID
"The public perception for passive tags is bad enough but with an active tag, it would most likely be felt that the transmission could be potentially more continual. Plus with a power source close to the person, opinion could be against the tags.

"Most of these perceptions are erroneous but they are real public perceptions that can undermine a product.

"As an example, the Department of Trade and Industry was asked by a man in Devon that if he bought products from Tesco, if Tesco could know in which room of his house he used them? Of course this is totally wrong and few tags are used to product level, but these are just the sort of problems facing RFID.

"Active tags could be more appropriate when affixed to permanent fixtures, like shipping containers, taxis, etc; that are read frequently."

Distant track

Mr Roberti added: "There are many other potential applications, such as tracking assets over a longer read range.

"With a battery, a credit-card-sized tag might be read from 300ft. Without a battery, a tag might be read from 15ft.

"So, you could use these inexpensive battery powered labels to track wheel chairs in hospitals or tools in factories or many other assets that need to be read from farther than 15ft away."

NEC has not talked about costs at this point, but says they will continue to work on the stability and the expansion of battery life towards possible commercialisation in the future.

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