Nano-based RFID tags might one day allow you to walk into a brick-and-mortar, put everything you want in a cart and leave without stopping at the register to pay. The RFID system will total up the items, charge your account and

instantly adjust the store’s inventory, radically simplifying both shopping and inventory control.

Researchers at Rice University in Texas and Sunchon National University in Korea are developing these tags, which would be embedded in every product’s packaging, as bar codes are today.

One of the major factors delaying the adoption of RFID technology on a large scale is the current price of RFID tags, which are mainly silicon-based. But nano is cheaper than silicon. Rice’s tags are based on a carbon-nanotube-infused ink for ink-jet printers developed at Rice, which makes it possible to print rolls of cheap RFID emitters. The nano-based tags would cost about a penny each, which the researchers believe is sufficiently inexpensive to drive industry adoption.

The two barriers to commercialization, the researchers say, are size and range. The RFID tags need to be reduced to the size of a bar code (at the moment, the tags are three times that size).

The second problem, range, is an obstacle for the RFID industry in general.

"Right now, the emitter has to be pretty close to the tags, but it's getting farther all the time," said James Tour, Rice professor of mechanical engineering, materials science and computer science.

"The practical distance to have it ring up all the items in your shopping cart is a meter,” Tour said. “But the ultimate would be to signal and get immediate response back from every item in your store – what's on the shelves, their dates, everything.”

To be able to read the entire store, the range would have to expand to 300 meters, the researchers say.

While there are still plenty of hurdles for RFID, it will be one of the most disruptive technologies of the next five years.

The internet has made users accustomed to a streamlined set of actions that are difficult to replicate in the physical world, but following that model with RFID and the eventual internet of things, our interactions with the built environment will be as fluid and as informationally rich as they are online.

By Mark Alvarez