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A New Tool for Electronics Companies

Intel developed a design that allows consumer electronics manufacturers to link RFID to its microprocessors in computers, tablets and other devices, enabling myriad applications—from manufacturing to supply chain and retail.
By Jill Gambon
Jul 16, 2012Intel Corp. was already the world's largest manufacturer of microprocessors when, in 2005, it began looking for ways to differentiate its products. The company thought it could enhance computer security and functionality by adding a "secure vault" to store a variety of information, such as personal identification and manufacturing records. This April, at RFID Journal LIVE! 2012, Intel introduced a platform that enables a secure vault—and many other applications, from locking electronics devices to deter theft during transit to customizing devices in sealed boxes at the point of sale. The platform promises to have a wide-reaching impact on the consumer electronics industry, from manufacturer to retailer, says Shahrokh Shahidzadeh, senior principal technologist at Intel, who spearheaded the project.

A key feature of the new platform is an ultrahigh-frequency RFID chip embedded in the device's motherboard and wired directly to the microprocessor. The chip is designed with extra memory dedicated to the processor, creating what Intel describes as "processor-secured storage," where data can be stored safely and activated when needed. The data on the chip can be written to or accessed by the Intel processor via an inter-integrated circuit (I2C) interface, which is a semiconductor industry standard, and from an external handheld or fixed RFID reader.

The RFID chip is embedded in a device's motherboard and wired directly to the microprocessor. (Photo: Tom Hurst / RFID Journal)
Intel gave the reference designs for the new platform to the hardware vendors that are making Windows 8 tablet computers, which are expected to hit the market later this year.

RFID Inside
When Intel began its secure vault project, RFID was considered mainly a supply-chain technology, but the company recognized that RFID chips were fundamentally memory chips, with an added RF air interface. Intel was looking for a way to add secure memory near the processor to store critical device identification data, and RFID chips emerged as a viable solution. Intel decided if it could add a wired interface to an RFID chip, the chip could be attached to a circuit board and communicate directly with a computer's central processing unit.

The company picked UHF RFID for the project for its relatively low power consumption and long read range. In addition, UHF chip memory can be programmed multiple times. As the project advanced, it became clear that a new chip would have to be created to meet the emerging requirements: The chip had to have memory dedicated to the processor and the ability to access that memory wirelessly. It also had to be scalable, so it could be used in everything from mobile phones to servers.

Intel worked with several semiconductor firms on the initial concept design for the project. For the chip development, the company partnered with Impinj, a Seattle-based maker of UHF chips and readers. The two companies share a common RFID history: In 2008, Impinj bought Intel's RFID division, which included Intel's widely used R1000 RFID reader chip.
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