Technology as Launching Point

E-mail Melanie Martella

Two stories caught my eye recently, both concerning researchers who took a widely available technology, in this case RFID tags, and tweaked it to create new sensors. And that's as it should be; the versatility of sensing technology, in all its variety, is why sensors are constantly finding their homes in new applications and new markets.

Why tweak an RFID tag? Because the tags are cheap and are designed to communicate. The first of the tag tweaks comes from GE's Global Research Center. Researchers added a chemically sensitive polymer film to a normal RFID tag, thus creating a passive RFID sensor. Exposed to the target chemical (or chemicals), the impedance of the antenna coil on the RFID tag changes and this change can be correlated to specific chemicals and their concentrations. By carefully choosing the film, the researchers could avoid interference effects. Result? An RFID tag that doubles as a sensor capable of detecting toxic gases or volatile organic compounds. Earlier this month, GE will partner with Avery Dennison to commercialize the technology.

The second tweak I talked about last week, in my January R&D Round Up, in which I discussed the University of Dayton's Bob Kauffman who altered RFID tags to only communicate if the tag's state changes, thus allowing the creation of aircraft wiring cable clamps that can tell a technician if they're broken. The SMART (Status and Motion Activated Radiofrequency Tag) shows promise as a quick and cheap way to sense and identify problems. Potential applications suggested by Kauffman range from cold-chain monitoring, impact sensing in football helmets, snooping prevention for RFID-enabled passports, or other types of tampering detection. Neat, isn't it?

Access to low-cost sensors lets more people bend a given technology to their will. (And that sounds rather threatening, but I think you know what I mean.) Given the huge (and growing) number of niche applications, it's not surprising to see the novel and inventive ways people have figured out to use sensors to make their processes better and smarter. If you've got a favorite clever sensor application that wouldn't be possible without access to cheap sensors of whatever type, now's the time to pipe up!

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