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New Memory May Reduce RFID Cost

Impinj says its AEON Memory costs less than conventional nonvolatile memory and uses less power.
Jan 26, 2003Jan. 27, 2003 - Companies that make microchips for RFID tags are in a battle to produce the smallest, cheapest chip with the best performance. Impinj, a three-year-old semiconductor design company, says it has a new weapon in the war.

Impinj has unveiled AEON Memory, which enables chip designers to embed small amounts of nonvolatile memory in integrated circuits (ICs) manufactured using standard CMOS processes. Essentially, the company has come up with a less-expensive way to create memory cells that store data on the chip.
Cheaper memory

AEON (for advanced eternal on-chip nonvolatile) could help bring down the cost of RFID tags. And there's another potential benefit. The company says AEON memory requires less power to retrieve information. Since passive tags get their power from a reader, the technology could extend the read range of RFID tags that use it.

"We can use a microwatt -- less than one millionth of a watt -- to read a bit out of our memory," says Larry Morrell, Impinj's director of nonvolatile marketing. "Conventional memory requires tens or 100s of microwatts."

Flash and EEPROM are the two most common types of nonvolatile memory. Both require processes that add layers on top of the standard CMOS microchips before the silicon is cut up into individual chips. That adds to the cost of the chip. AEON Memory can be created during the CMOS processes, with no additional layers.

Memory is essentially a charge that is stored on the chip. If a charge is present, that's a one in binary code, and if there is no charge, that's a zero. AEON Memory is not very dense because the floating gates -- tiny circuit switches in which one terminal isn't connected to anything -- that store the charge have to be spread horizontally instead of vertically. But that's not a problem for RFID microchips because they typically don't store that much memory.

"For applications that require 100 bits to a couple of thousand bits, AEON is very competitive," says Morrell. "And that's exactly the range that RFID fits in right now."

Impinj was founded in May 2000, in Seattle, Wash., by semiconductor industry veterans Carver Mead and Chris Diorio. The company doesn't make microchips, but will license its intellectual property to chip makers like Texas Instruments and Philips Semiconductors, as well as RFID companies like Intermec Technologies.

Impinj is currently putting AEON through rigorous testing, which includes baking test chips at 250 degrees Celsius for 42 days. The company guarantees its memory for 100,000 read-write cycles and 10 years of data retention.

"We’re about five months into the six-month qualification process," says Morrell. "At the end of the process, we'll have data for our customers, so they will have confidence to incorporate our intellectual property into their next designs."

No chip designers have licensed the technology yet. But Morrell says that a number of RFID companies have show interest in the AEON technology, including Alien Technology and Matrics.

"This is an exciting development," says Roger Stewart, an independent consultant and microchip designer. "It provides companies with another option for creating nonvolatile memory."

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