Identity? No more crisis

A new version of the memory cards could spell a radical shift in our notions of identity cards, passports or quite simply any kind of documentation. YI is this magic memory material which renders these cards more power and capacity apart from being kinder on the purse

Published: Wednesday 31 January 1996

WHEN the British government was debating as to whether or not it should introduce identity cards, it had several options before it. The cards could be made available on a voluntary basis or driving licences with photos could double as identity cards. The third option was to make it compulsory for everyone to carry a government card which carries all personal details. Smart cards could be used to store a wide range of pictorial and textual information. But these could be issued only at a relatively high cost. Certain recent developments seem to have brought these cards within the British government's reach.

Motorola, the US communications giant has linked up with Matsushita of Japan and bought the Indala Corporation, an electronics company in San Hose, California, to offer a new memory technology which cuts the cost of memory storage. Kodak IBM have also developed a 'hypercompression' system that stores photographs in such a small memory space that even a magnetic credit card can carry the owner's electronic picture (Everyday with Practical Electronics, August, 1995).

Existing memory cards either have a built-in battery to data inside volatile Random Access Memory (RAM) or use high current to write to a non-volatile memory - the Electrically Eraseable Programmable Read Only Memory (EEPROM). The new material, YI is a ferroelectric ceramic material similar to a high temperature superconductor. When formed into a honeycomb lattice of individual cells, the cells store bits of digital code as isolated pits of capacitive charge. The written charge pattern remains permanent until a fresh writing current is applied.

The YI theory was proposed five years ago by researchers at the University of Colorado but Matsushita developed and patented a way of making a cell matrix by a technique similar to that used to fabricate microchips from silicon wafers. The Indala Corporation then worked out a way of using the matrix inside a credit card or resin button, along with a miniature radio transponder and aerial made from 400 turns of very thin wire. The matrix uses the power of an interrogation signal to send back a response signal which is coded to carry whatever information is in the memory. Motorola and Indala design the YI cell structures which Matsushita fabricates in Osaka, Japan.

"It is very nearly the perfect memory material," says Rudyard Istvan, the Motorola president of Indala. "But if you do not use exactly the right recipe for the mix, the cake turns out flat."

YI reads and writes almost instantaneously while RAM, Flash and EEPROM take one second to read each kilobite of data. Also, Flash and EEPROM memories fail after they have been written and erased a few hundred thousand times. YI survives a billion cycles.

Says Istvan: "We have already thought of fusing the system to store electronically compressed photographs. You could walk through passport control without taking the card out of your pocket. The only way to counterfeit cards would be to build a silicon wafer fabrication plant and modify it for YI processing".

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