Where Have All the Barcodes Gone?

Technology under development through Rice University could eliminate the need for checkout lines at the grocery store. As Laurie Johnson reports — Rice's nanotube research is part of an international effort to change the way retail stores track and sell inventory.

Imagine if you could load up your cart at the grocery store, skip the checkout line and simply walk out the door.

That's exactly what Rice University Professor Jim Tour envisions possible through the use of nano-based RFID tags.

"So RF identification tags, or RFIDs, what they do is they give information just like a barcode. But a barcode you have to hold in front of a detector. An RFID tag, you can send a radio wave to it which generates power within it to send the signal back. You could have everything in the basket, it doesn't have to go in front of a certain light, it rings it up and you walk right out."

RFID tags are already in use on a wide variety of products. You'll spot them on DVDs and electronics, even razor blades. They're in passports and they're what makes your EZ-tag work when you drive on the tollroad. But right now they're largely silicon-based, which makes them too expensive to replace barcodes. That's where Tour's research comes in.

"We went out and we bought a couple of $100 HP ink-jet printers and with some syringes we withdrew the ink that was in the ink-jet cartridges and installed our own inks, which were inks that were composed of carbon-nanotubes."

Tour's lab is working with a team at Sunchon National University in Korea to use that semi-conductive ink that can transmit a signal to print RFID tags directly onto products, in much the same way barcodes are printed.

Tour says they've figured out how to print the tags, but they need to make them smaller and cheaper while still able to transmit more information.

"Where we are now is the printing cost is about three cents a piece, so that has to be moved down to about one cent each. And the size is about three times larger than it has to be, so we have to reduce the size a little bit and be able to reduce the cost."

RFID tags printed through a new roll-to-roll process could replace bar codes and make checking out of a store a snap.

Printable RFID tags could change more than just the way you check out at the grocery store. If the radio frequency is strong enough, stores could track their entire inventory using the tags. That could reduce theft, help retailers keep tabs on when a product is about to expire and track which brands sell better. Tour says competition to develop this technology is intense.

"It's a $100 billion business."

A business that could take off in less than a decade. And since Rice University holds part of the patent for the nano-based printable tags, it could bring some of those billions right here to Houston.







IMAGE CREDIT: GYOU-JIN CHO/SUNCHON NATIONAL UNIVERSITY
Bio photo of Laurie Johnson

Laurie Johnson

Local Host, All Things Considered

Laurie Johnson is the Houston host for All Things Considered at KUHF NPR for Houston. Before taking the anchor chair, she worked as a general assignments reporter at KUHF, starting there as an intern in 2002...