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Tree Frogs
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Frogs and Toads
Fishy Sounds
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Poor Devils
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Chemistry and Materials
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Atomic Drive
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Whale Watch
A Change in Leaf Color
Finding the Past
A Volcano's Deadly Ash
Little People Cause Big Surprise
Stone Age Sole Survivors
Basking Sharks
Cleaning Up Fish Farms
Food and Nutrition
A Taste for Cheese
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Chocolate Rules
GSAT English Rules
Order of Adjectives
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Human Body
A Better Flu Shot
Gut Germs to the Rescue
Nature's Medicines
African Elephants
Children and Media
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The Surprising Meaning and Benefits of Nursery Rhymes
Electric Backpack
Spin, Splat, and Scramble
Invisibility Ring
Tracking the Sun Improves Plant Pollen
Surprise Visitor
A Change in Leaf Color
Space and Astronomy
A Very Distant Planet Says "Cheese"
No Fat Stars
Ringing Saturn
Technology and Engineering
Dancing with Robots
Bionic Bacteria
Space Umbrellas to Shield Earth
The Parts of Speech
What is a Preposition?
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How to Fly Like a Bat
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Beyond Bar Codes

In the future, your refrigerator might alert you when the milk has gone sour. At the grocery store, cashiers won't need to scan bar codes because products will provide the data on their own. And packages and letters will carry electronic tags that send messages about where they are. To make such a world possible, scientists are working on a technology called radiofrequency identification (RFID). An RFID tag is an electronic device that can be glued to cereal boxes, milk cartons, envelopes, and other objects. The tags store information and use radio signals to communicate with computers or sensors. RFID tags already exist in the form of "smart cards" that store dollar amounts for riders of some public transportation systems. RFID chips have also been implanted in animals to identify them and allow owners to find them if the animals get lost. In these cases, the tags are made of silicon, the material from which most computer chips are made. However, silicon electronic tags are too expensive to be used as widely as printed bar codes are. Now, scientists from two companies in Europe have independently taken steps toward speeding up the spread of RFID technology. They have created tags completely out of plastic materials with the right kinds of electronic properties to transmit radio signals efficiently. The methods for making plastic tags are much cheaper than those for making silicon tags. The tags produced by scientists from Philips Research Laboratories in Eindhoven in the Netherlands are made from a type of plastic called pentacene and transmit radio waves at a frequency of 13.56 megahertz. The tags produced by PolyIC in Erlangen, Germany, use a different type of plastic. Neither type of tag is perfect yet. The plastic tags are still expensive and tricky to manufacture, and their radio signals don't travel very far. It may be a few years yet before plastic RFIDs make their way into nearly all of our everyday objects. But when they do, there will be an amazing amount of information zooming invisibly around us.—E. Sohn

Beyond Bar Codes
Beyond Bar Codes

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