Fact Check

Is This a Picture of Hitachi 'Smart Dust'?

Back in 2001, Hitachi announced the development of a tiny, powder-like RFID chip.

Published April 21, 2013

An image shows "smart dust" miniaturized RFID technology developed by Hitachi.

Smart-dust: Hitachi Develops World's Smallest RFID Chip.

Nicknamed "Powder" or "Dust", the surface area of the new chips is a quarter of the original 0.3 x 0.3 mm, 60µm-thick<.NOBR> chip developed by Hitachi in 2003. And this RFID chip is only one-eighth the width of the previous model.

Hitachi expects this tiny size will open the way to new applications for wireless RFID chips. The RFID "powder" can be incorporated into thin paper, such as currency, creating so-called "bugged" money.

The RFID Loc8tor can identify special RFID tags from a distance of up to 183 meters (600 feet), and the RFID chips have GPS capabilities.

"By taking advantage of the merits of compactness, high authenticity and wireless communication, and combining it with Internet technology, the µ-Chip may be utilized in a broad range of applications such as security, transportation, amusement, traceability and logistics."

Back in 2001, Hitachi announced the development of a 0.4mm x 0.4mm external antenna µ-Chip, a tiny, powder-like RFID chip like the ones shown in the image displayed above, and in 2003 the company promoted the development of an embedded antenna version of the µ-Chip:

Hitachi, Ltd. today announced that it has developed a new version of its RFID µ-Chip embedding an antenna. When using Hitachi's original µ-Chip, one of the world's smallest RFID ICs measuring only 0.4mm X 0.4mm, an external antenna must be attached to the chip to allow external devices to read the 128-bit ID number stored in its ROM (Read-Only-Memory). This newly developed version, however, features an internal antenna, enabling chips to employ the energy of incoming electrical waves to wirelessly transmit its ID number to a reader. The 0.4mm X 0.4mm chip can thus operate entirely on its own, making it possible to use µ-Chip as RFID IC tags without the need to attach external devices. This breakthrough opens the door to using µ-Chips as RFID IC tags in extremely minute and precise applications that had been impractical until now. For example, the new µ-Chip can be easily embedded in bank notes, gift certificates, documents and whole paper media etc.

In 2006, Hitachi announced the development and verified operation of a 0.15 x 0.15 mm contactless IC chip:

Hitachi, Ltd. today announced it has developed and verified operation of a 0.15 x 0.15 millimeter (mm), 7.5 micrometer (µm) thick contactless IC chip, the smallest and thinnest in the world, to date. The chip is a smaller version of the 0.4 x 0.4 mm "µ-Chip" currently being marketed by Hitachi, maintaining the same level of functionality. The distance between each circuit element was reduced by using SOI technology, which has an insulating layer in the substrate, instead of the Si (silicon) only substrate currently being used. Compared to the 0.3 x 0.3 mm, 60µm thick IC chip (henceforth 0.3mm IC chip) announced by Hitachi in February 2003, surface area is reduced to a quarter of the original size. Developments in thin chip fabrication technology have also enabled the chip to be reduced to one-eighth the thickness of the 0.3mm IC chip, at the same time. This significant decrease in size, increases the number of chips which can be fabricated on a single wafer, thus increasing productivity by more than four times. Compared to the current product which was used at the 2005 World Exposition held in Aichi, Japan, productivity is increased by about 10 times. This technology is expected to open the way to new applications for contactless IC chips.

In 2007, news accounts reported a miniaturization step beyond the original µ-Chip, an external antenna version that was reported as being 60 times smaller:

Tiny computer chips used for tracking food, tickets and other items are getting even smaller. Hitachi, a Japanese electronics maker, recently showed off radio frequency identification, or RFID, chips that are just 0.002 inches by 0.002 inches [0.05 mm x 0.05 mm] and look like bits of powder. They're thin enough to be embedded in a piece of paper, company spokesman Masayuki Takeuchi said.

RFID tags store data, but they need to be brought near special reading devices that beam energy to the chips, which then send information back to the readers.

The technology is already widely used to track and identify items, such as monitoring the distribution of food products or guarding against forgery of concert tickets.

Shown to the public for the first time earlier this month, the new chip is an improvement on its predecessor from Hitachi — the Mu-chip, which at 0.4 millimeters by 0.4 millimeters, looks about the size of the period at the end of this sentence.

The latest chip, which still has no name, is 60 times smaller than the Mu-chip but can handle the same amount of information, which gets stored as a 38-digit number, according to Hitachi.

One catch is that the new chip needs an external antenna, unlike the Mu-chip.

The smallest antennas are about 0.16 inches — giants next to the powder-size chip.

There are no plans yet to start commercial production of the new chip, Takeuchi said.

Invisible tracking brings to mind science-fiction-inspired uses, or even abuses, such as unknowingly getting sprinkled with smart-tag powder for Big Brother-like monitoring.

"We are not imagining such uses," Takeuchi said, adding that the latest chip is so new — and so miniature — Hitachi is still studying its possible uses.

Contrary to some versions of this item, however, we have not yet seen any official mention of such "smart dust" technology having GPS capabilities or being able to survive in a functional state after being ingested.


Kageyama, Yuri.   "Hitachi Shows Off Powder-Sized Smart Tag."     USA Today.   23 February 2007.