Battery-free, multi-detection wireless sensors

Published 15 October 2008

Home food and beverage safety monitoring, remote water purity testing, more effective chemical and biological sensors are all potential applications

GE Global Research, the technology development arm of the General Electric Company, has just announced a battery-free, multi-detection radio-frequency identification (RFID) sensing platform that could enable a range of low cost wireless sensing products in security, healthcare, food packaging, water treatment, and pollution prevention.

The sensing platform, in which a single sensor can provide a selective response to multiple chemicals under variable conditions, operates without a battery. Without a battery, new sensors can be designed to be smaller than a penny and manufactured at low cost. This could enable many new product applications, including:

  • New security sensors that can detect dangerous chemical and biological threats
  • In-the-field water purification monitoring, checking for water impurities
  • Food and beverage safety monitoring, measuring the freshness of goods in transport or that are stored in the refrigerator at home
  • Portable vaccine manufacturing, ensuring the purity of a vaccine manufactured on-site during an emergency response to a flu outbreak or other potential pandemic
  • Emissions monitoring at power plants

Radislav Potyrailo, a principal scientist at GE Global Research who leads the multidisciplinary wireless sensing development team, said, “We believe GE’s battery-free wireless sensing platform will be a game-changer across many product platforms in healthcare, security, water and pollution prevention, to name a few. Without the need for batteries, we can make sensors that are much smaller in size and at substantially reduced costs. These attributes, combined with the sensors’ highly selective chemical and bio sensing capabilities, provide new breakthrough sensing opportunities that will open the door to many new, innovative applications.”

Potyrailo added, “Because these sensors can be made at such low cost, they also can be made for one-time use. Similar to how your groceries get scanned for a price, imagine pointing a handheld sensor reader at a milk carton or packaged food to see whether it has been spoiled. This is just one of the new applications you can begin to consider with disposable, low cost multi-detection RFID sensors.”

Note that these new RFID sensors use a conventional RFID tag, but are coated with a chemically or biologically sensitive film. The sensor reader can obtain several varied responses, which allows the sensor to identify and measure individual chemicals in different mixtures and variable conditions. GE’s sensors can detect trace concentrations of toxic gases such as toxic industrial chemicals (TICs), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and chemicals in liquids.

Now, to operate without batteries, the power is obtained wirelessly from the sensor reader. The reader activates the sensor antenna and the RFID chip and collects several response data parameters. The measurement of these parameters provides the ability to selectively detect different chemicals with an individual sensor.