We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

How to Embed Tracers in Cupcakes, Surgical Tools, & Hotel Towels

Jun 8, 2011 8:08 PMNov 20, 2019 9:19 PM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news
Photo Credits: Image credit: Hannes Harmes, via video

What if your food were as rich in information as it is in nutrients? That's the vision of an art student who recently demonstrated online a prototype of a system where an edible chip embedded in your lunch communicates its nutritional information, provenance, travel miles, and so on to your phone via a reader in the plate. With this system, people could check ingredient lists for allergens, tally up the carbon footprint of their meal, or figure out whether they'll still have calories left for dessert.

Sound fanciful? Perhaps. But such radio-frequency identification chips, which are best known for use in automatic toll-paying devices and some credit cards, can be found in all sorts of unlikely places today, from hotel towels to casino chips to people. And there is in fact an edible version— Kodak patented it in 2007. The day when cupcakes reveal their secrets to your phone might not be as far off as you think.

Photo Credits: Image credit: lisaclarke/flickr

RFID chips function somewhat like bar codes—each has a unique signature that can be used to track its movements.

A company called Linen Technology Tracking produces RFID chips that can be sewn into towels and sheets, with the intention of helping hotels keep track of their linen inventory. The chips can be automatically read in hotel laundry chutes, in towel bins by the pool, and perhaps someday at check out, so the staff knows when some light-fingered guest has a towel in their suitcase.

The company's site isn't available to anyone without a login, so the exact details of the system remain foggy, but at least three hotels in Honolulu, Miami, and New York are using the system, the CEO says (via NYT).

Photo Credits: Image credit: ClearCount

Every now and then, a surgeon sews a patient up with a surprise left inside. Scissors, sponges, and so on eventually make their presences known, but if you don't relish feeling like the patient in the game of Operation, your surgeon can purchase surgical sponges that come with an RFID chip sewn in.

At the beginning of the procedure, the surgeon swipes the packet of sponges over a sensor that registers the contents. Then, as she uses them up, she drops them into a pail equipped with a sensor that counts them as they fall in. If any are AWOL at the end of the procedure, she can wave a sensor over the patient's body to see if any of them were, ah, left behind.

Photo Credits: Image credit: banspy/flickr

RFID tags embedded in chips make it easier for casinos to process winnings faster and keep track of how much money is circulating, but they also have a security component. When a thief stole $1.5 million of chips from the Bellagio in 2010, the casino simply invalidated the RFID chips, turning them into a mere pile of plastic.

Photo Credits: Image credit: pelican/flickr

Pet owners can get their furry friends equipped with RFID chips injected under the skin, so if Fido runs away, whoever finds him can have a vet scan the chip and find the owner is in an online database.

While many people are familiar with the idea of dogs and cats getting chipped, the practice is also used with exotic pets like the Asian arowana fish, above, when there's concern of possible smuggling or sale of wild animals. For these purposes, the chip is a serial number and a guarantee of legal sale.

Photo Credits: Image credit: ishmell/flickr

Injecting RFID tags under one's own skin might make some a little leery—especially after watching this home video of a doctor using a massive needle to implant a chip in a man's hand. And attempts to take the technology commercial have generally crashed and burned, as concerns about safety and the availability of chip readers have trumped the possible convenience of having an ID number embedded in your body.

But some have taken the matter into their own hands: Amal Graafstra, whose hands are shown above and in the movie, has had chips put into both hands for the purpose of locking and unlocking his house and car doors and accessing his computer. The incision above was made with a scalpel, Amal notes in his Flickr stream, because no needle was readily available.

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.