New technology for IDs?

Texas Instruments works on a new generation of contactless chips

As governments go digital, the demand for contactless chips for use in electronic documents is expected to grow in the next five years to as much as $1 billion annually, and Texas Instruments (TI) wants a piece of that market.

The Dallas company said last month that it is developing a new smart, integrated-circuit design that features a memory technology optimized for radio frequency readers. Product details will not be announced for another month or two, and it could be years before the contactless chips are available for use in e-passports or other documents, the company said.

The State Department began issuing e-passports with embedded contactless chips in August 2006 and switched completely to the new format in May. The passports contain not only traditional printed information but also electronic data than can be accessed with RF readers. TI is eyeing the next generation of passports for its chips.

'We found there were some gaps between what the chips can do today and what the market wanted,' said V.C. Kumar, the company's government identification manager.

Kumar said the new design is expected to be faster and more efficient and provide better security than those now in use. The chips would use a technology called Ferroelectric Random Access Memory, or FRAM, which TI hopes will replace Flash and Electrically Erasable Programmable Read-only Memory, or EEPROM, now used in most contactless chips.

'It's a fundamentally different technology,' Kumar said.

Because it will use standards-based interfaces, FRAM memory devices would be able to work with existing chip readers and writers.

TI says current contactless RF chips are based on modifications of chips designed to be read and powered through direct contact with a reader. These are not optimized for RF use and have limitations with speed, performance and power usage.
Both Flash and EEPROM use relatively high voltage ' 10 to 14 volts ' to embed an electrical charge in silicon. They are inefficient when RF is the sole power source for the chip, require complex circuitry and
impose size limitations.

FRAM uses ferroelectric crystals integrated into a capacitor and does not rely on magnetic charges for memory.

'FRAM stores information through the use of a spontaneous, stable electric dipole found in the ferroelectric crystal,' a paper produced by the company states.
That means data is recorded through polarization of a dipole atom in the crystal that can have a positive or negative orientation. The polarity can be set or changed with a small current. It is read by measuring the amount of charge produced by another small current, which indicates whether it is positive or negative. A negative dipole produces a small charge to indicate a 0, and a positive produces a larger charge to indicate a 1.

TI hopes greater miniaturization and improved processing speeds will help meet demands for biometric features, such as digital fingerprints, to be incorporated into documents. The International Civil Aviation Organization, which sets standards for travel documents, requires Basic Access Control on electronic passports. With BAC, data optically scanned from the physical document generates a key needed to access the chip, so physical possession of the document is necessary to read it. When fingerprints are included on the chip, ICAO requires Extended Access Control, which adds authentication of both chip and reader. These processes would be easier to support on a smaller, more powerful chip.

TI also is touting greater speed in writing to FRAM. The company said data can be written to FRAM in less than 50 nanoseconds, compared with micro- or millisecond speeds with Flash and EEPROM, an improvement by a factor of 1,000 or 10,000. Kumar referred to this summer's backlog in passport applications, which left many citizens scrambling to get documents in time for trips.

'We will be able to shave a few seconds off the current process,' he said. 'You multiply that by a couple of million on a monthly basis, it's going to be a considerable savings.'

How much faster?

But it is questionable whether nanosecond writing speeds will make much difference in the issuing process. Steve Royster, a spokesman at the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs, said this summer's bottleneck was a problem of volume, not technology. The department got walloped with a record number of applications, he said. The volume of applications was a result of a new requirement that air travelers returning from abroad have passports to re-enter the country.

'The implementation of a new document did not contribute to the backlog,' Royster said. He said the issuing process is back on track. 'It was a concern, but we threw a lot of resources at it and got back up to where we want to be.'

Passport demand has slacked off some, and the turnaround time for passport requests now is at the standard six to eight weeks. Royster said now would be a good time for people with travel plans for next year to apply for passports in advance of new travel regulations set to go into effect in 2008.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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