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Bluechiip Nears Commercial Launch of System for Biobanking Apps

The company has lined up a manufacturer—STMicroelectronics—to make its passive RFID sensor tags, which are based on MEMS technology, measure 4 millimeters across and can transmit temperature data at -196 degrees Celsius.
By Claire Swedberg
Feb 02, 2011Since 2003, Bluechiip Ltd., an Australian startup located in the Melbourne suburb of Scoresby, has been developing a radio frequency identification system that employs tiny passive RFID tags based on micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) technology, capable of operating in extreme temperatures. Within the next 11 months, the company says it hopes to make its technology commercially available, with STMicroelectronics manufacturing the MEMS tags.

The system is designed for use on items in cryogenic storage, with tiny tags that can be embedded in vials or attached to bags of medical tissues and other products stored at temperatures too cold for most standard RFID tags to function. By mid-2011, Bluechiip expects to provide evaluation packs or startup kits of the technology for those wishing to test the system within their own environments, says Brett Schwarz, Bluechiip's managing director and CEO, while the MEMS tags are expected to be made commercially available by late 2011.

Bluechiip's Matchbox reader and Retriever wand

The tags include the ability to measure temperatures and transmit that information to a Bluechiip reader, which can be set to trigger an alarm if a temperature threshold has been reached. The evaluation kits will come with tubes and vials with integrated tags, as well as Bluechiip's Matchbox reader, which employs a proprietary air-interface protocol to capture data from the MEMS tags. An individual vial can be read by placing it into an insert on top of the Matchbox reader. The Matchbox's Retriever wand, which contains a 25-millimeter-long reader antenna, can be placed in a liquid nitrogen tank to capture the tag ID numbers without having to remove vials or tubes from the tank. The kits will include Bluechiip's Stream software, which interprets temperature and ID data from tag transmissions, in addition to storing data and triggering alerts.

The system is intended to help pharmaceutical and health-care companies manage what can be hundreds of thousands of temperature-sensitive products, often stored at temperatures as low as -196 degrees Celsius (-321 degrees Fahrenheit) or as high as +200 degrees Celsius (+392 degrees Fahrenheit). The Bluechiip tag can also be integrated into a plastic sample-storage container during the injection-molding process used to manufacture such a container, as well as survive sterilization processes. Although some standard RFID tags can operate in extreme heat or cold (see ORLocate RFID-enabled System for Surgical Sponges and Instruments Gets FDA Clearance and RFID Tag Built to Survive Gamma Rays), they come with limitations, according to Schwarz. For example, he says, most standard RFID tags require thermal packaging to insulate their silicon chips, which makes the tags too large to attach to cryogenic tubes.

Bluechiip, operating under the name MEMS-ID, began with a prototype MEMS-based tag small enough to be attached to surgical devices and capable of withstanding sterilization (see MEMS the Word). The passive tag, which measures 4 millimeters (0.16 inch) in width and length, contains an array of metallic resonators built upon a silicon substrate that includes a printed circuit-board antenna. The resonators vibrate upon receiving an RF signal from a reader, thereby emitting a backscattered signal in varying frequencies that are converted into a unique binary serial number. Currently, the tag's read range is approximately 3 to 5 millimeters (0.12 to 0.2 inch), though Bluechiip may develop a new generation of tags with differently sized antennas that could increase that range.

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