An LED ticker in your credit card?

Light-emitting diode strips resembling correction tape to soon be embedded in shopping plastic, phones and mirrors, AgiLight hopes.Photo: Paper-thin LEDs
Written by Michael Kanellos, Contributor
AUSTIN, Texas--In the not-so-distant future, your credit card will have a screen, and there's a good chance that it will store music and photos too, at least according to J. Bryant Vincent.

The shrinking size of chips, combined with better packaging, will enable card companies to insert more complex semiconductors into credit cards and other items, according to Vincent, CEO of AgiLight, which has come up with a way to insert light-emitting diodes into thin films that, in turn, can be embedded into devices.

AgiLight's LED strips could be put into a mirror or piece of glass, for instance, that would then scroll news headlines or stock quotes, Vincent said during a meeting at the Clean Energy Venture Summit here this week. Conceivably, the company's NanoFlex packaging could accommodate other types of chips as well.

A strip of the NanoFlex packaging, with lights, has close to the same thickness and flexibility as a sheet of paper. When turned off, it looks like a piece of correction ribbon.

"We hope to be in credit cards by the end of the year," he said.

Photo: Paper-thin LEDs

Why would you need an LED display in a credit card? It could flash up a dynamic security code that would cut down on some forms of credit card fraud, for one. Thieves would need the physical card, and not simply the credit card number and information, to complete transactions.

The company also is trying to get its LED packaging into cell phones. Because the chemicals used in cold cathode fluorescent lights are seen as harmful to the environment, European regulators are phasing out their use in mobile devices, forcing cell phone makers to look for other options.

Global warming, rising electricity prices and declining manufacturing costs have opened the market for LED lighting in the past few years. LEDs consume less energy than traditional incandescent bulbs and have begun to rival compact fluorescent bulbs in the number of lumens they can generate per watt.

"LED is the most efficient lighting source in the world," Vincent said.

LED lights cost more than traditional forms of lighting, but the price tag is declining. Large-scale deployments are expected, according to many in the industry. Wal-Mart Stores, among other companies, is looking at ways to replace lights inside of its freezer cabinets with LEDs, which typically last far longer than other types of lighting. Some can last 50,000 hours or more.

AgiLight's NanoFlex packaging works as follows. Small holes are created with a laser in a thin strip of copper. LEDs are then inserted into the holes and microwelded to the copper. The copper strip, which is encased in polymer, thus acts as a package and wires.

The LEDs that get embedded in the NanoFlex packaging are relatively small, measuring only about 80 microns thick. (A micron is a millionth of a meter.)

The company has recently raised a new round of capital to help it commercialize the LED packaging. Some of the investors come from the Middle East, he said, which has begun to place investments in clean-energy technologies. AgiLight currently sells LED lights that can replace the neon bulbs in commercial signs.

Neon lights use a lot of electricity, Vincent said, and often contain mercury. LEDs have gone from occupying 3 percent of the sign industry in 2002 to 14 percent in 2006.

"A 4-foot neon tube contains enough mercury to contaminate a 40 acre lake," he stated. "We do a lot of work in Las Vegas."

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