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NASA Unveils Spray-On Circuits

The space agency showed how it can spray a thin film of metal on any object to create RF antennas and electronic circuits.
Sep 26, 2002Sept. 26, 2002 -- Like many breakthrough discoveries, this one happened by accident. NASA had built a vacuum chamber in which astronauts could practice welding in space. The problem was, whenever the astronauts tried to weld something, it created a vapor that left a thin film of metal on the inside of the chamber.

The Russians had similar problems. But while the Russians learned how to get rid of the vapor, NASA figured out a way to control it and use it. The space agency created a "portable vacuum thin film deposition" device, which is a fancy way of saying NASA developed a handheld unit that lets engineers spray a thin film of metal on just about anything.

At the Frontline conference in Chicago on Tuesday, Fred Schramm of NASA's technology transfer department displayed a feather, a tissue, a piece of plastic wrap and a dollar bill coated with a thin film of chrome, as well as photos of rocks and other objects covered in chrome and copper.

NASA's main interest in the technology, which is still in development, is to create smart structures. Agency engineers spray the metal coating on a part and then analyze the film to determine what happened to it during space flight. But Schramm says that NASA has used a mask, or stencil, to create data matrix, two-dimensional matrix symbols that contain dark and light squares.

Schramm told a rapt audience that the same technology could transform the RFID industry. "We now have a handheld device that's roughly the size of a hair dryer," he said. "You could walk up to a wall and put a metal layer on it. We've created masks to make data matrix on a surface, and if you change the mask you can make an antenna or a circuit."

NASA hasn't made either yet because low-cost RFID is not an area of interest. But it does want to transfer the technology to the private sector. Schramm held out the possibility that one day, RFID tags could be sprayed on packaging, the way bar codes are printed right on many packages today.

Schramm say how long it would take before a product would be on the market, but it would likely be a couple of years. He also declined to say how much a reader would cost to build. The prototype probably cost in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, to create. A company called Vacuum Arc Technology Inc. is working to commercialize it.

Schramm said RFID companies have contacted him about using the technology to create low-cost tags. "We see [the technology being used to create] the antenna first, then the circuit," he said. "One day, you are going to have somebody putting circuits and sensors right on walls, bags, anything."

He said these spray-on RFID tags and sensors would respond to a reader the same way existing technology does. "New technology impacts every corner of our society," Schramm said. "This is a quantum leap, not a baby step."
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