Inside the tiny chip that powers Montreal subway tickets

To use the Montreal subway (the Métro), you tap a paper ticket against the turnstile and it opens. The ticket works through a system called NFC, but what's happening internally? How does the ticket work without a battery? How does it communicate with the turnstile? And how can it be so cheap that you can throw the ticket away after one use? To answer these questions, I opened up a ticket and examined the tiny chip inside.

The image below shows the chip inside the ticket, highly magnified. The four golden squares in the corner are the connections to the antenna. The tan-colored lines are the metal wiring layer on top of the chip; the thickest lines wire the antenna to other parts of the chip. The darker region that takes up the majority of the chip is the chip's digital logic. To the left is the analog circuitry that handles the signal from the antenna.

The MIFARE Ultralight die under the microscope. (Click this image (or any other) for a larger view.

The MIFARE Ultralight die under the microscope. (Click this image (or any other) for a larger view.

The chip uses NFC (Near-Field Communication). The idea behind NFC is that a reader (i.e. the turnstile) and an NFC tag (i.e. the ticket) communicate over a short distance through magnetic fields, allowing them to exchange data. The reader generates a magnetic field that both powers the tag and sends data to the tag. Both the reader and the tag have coil-like antennas so the reader's magnetic field can be picked up by the tag.1 When you tap your ticket on the turnstile, the NFC communication happens in 35 milliseconds, faster than an eyeblink. The data provided by the NFC tag shows that you have a valid ticket and then you can enter the subway.

The photo below shows the subway ticket, made of printed paper.2 At the right, the ticket appears to have golden smart-card contacts, like a credit card with an EMV chip. However, those contacts are completely fake, just printed onto the card with ink, and there is no chip there. Presumably, the makers thought that making the card look like a smart card would help people understand it. The card actually uses an entirely different technology.

A Montreal subway card. This card is for occasional use and is disposable. Regular travel uses a rigid plastic card containing a different chip.

A Montreal subway card. This card is for occasional use and is disposable. Regular travel uses a rigid plastic card containing a different chip.

Although the subway card is paper on the outside, its core is a thin plastic sheet, shown below. The sheet has a coiled antenna made from a layer of metal foil. If you look closely, you can see the tiny NFC chip in the lower right, a black speck connected to two sides of the antenna wire.3 The diagonal metal stripe in the upper left makes the antenna into a loop; topologically, a spiral antenna won't work on a 2-D sheet, so the diagonal bridge completes the circuit.

The antenna and chip inside the subway card.

The antenna and chip inside the subway card.

I want to emphasize the absurdly small size of the chip: 570 µm × 485 µm. The photo below shows that it is about the size of a grain of salt. The chip is also extremely thin—75 µm or 120 µm—so you can't even feel the chip inside the ticket.

The chip next to grains of salt. I composited two images, one illuminated from above to show the die and one illuminated from below to show the salt.

The chip next to grains of salt. I composited two images, one illuminated from above to show the die and one illuminated from below to show the salt.

Functions of the chip

There are many different types of NFC chips with varying levels of functionality. 4 This one is called the MIFARE Ultralight EV1,5 a low-cost chip designed for one-time ticketing applications. The basic function of the Ultralight chip is simple: providing a block of data to the reader. The chip holds its data in a small EEPROM; this chip has 48 bytes of user memory, while another variant has 108 bytes of user memory.

The Ultralight chip lacks the cryptography support found in more advanced chips. The Ultralight isn't much more secure than a printed ticket with a QR code or barcode, like you'd download for a show. It's up to the reader to validate the data and make sure the same ticket isn't being used multiple times.6

The Ultralight chip has a few features beyond a printed ticket, though. The chips are manufactured with a unique 7-byte identification code (UID). Moreover, the UID is signed, ensuring that fake UIDs cannot be generated.7 The chip also supports password-protected memory access and locking of memory pages to prevent modification. Since the password is transmitted without encryption, the security is weak, but better than nothing.8

Another interesting feature of the chip is the one-way counter. The chip has three 24-bit counters that can be incremented but not decremented. The counters can be used to allow the ticket to be used a particular number of times, for instance.9

Photographing the chip

To photograph the chip, I went through several steps to remove the chip from the ticket and then strip the chip down to the bare silicon. First, to extract the plastic sheet with the chip and the antenna from the paper ticket, I simply soaked the ticket in water. This turned the paper into mush, which could be scraped off to reveal the plastic core. Next, I cut out a small square of plastic that included the chip and put it in boiling sulfuric acid for about 30 seconds. This removed the plastic and adhesive, leaving the silicon die. (I try to avoid boiling acids, but processing a tiny chip like this only required a few drops of sulfuric acid, minimizing the risk.)

The die was covered with a passivation layer to protect its surface, a sandwich of silicon nitride and PSG (phosphosilicate glass) 1.1 µm thick according to the datasheet. The chip's underlying circuitry was visible, but slightly hazy due to this layer. I removed the passivation layer by boiling the chip in phosphoric acid for a few minutes. The image below shows the chip after this step. The top metal layer is much more visible, although some of the metal was dissolved by the acid. The thick metal lines connect the four bond pads to various parts of the analog circuitry, while many thin vertical metal lines provide interconnections of the logic circuitry.

The die after treatment with phosphoric acid to remove the passivation layer. Click for a much larger version.

The die after treatment with phosphoric acid to remove the passivation layer. Click for a much larger version.

Next, I treated the die with several cycles of treatment with Armour Etch to dissolve the oxide layer and hydrochloric acid to dissolve the metal. I think the chip had three layers of metal wiring on top of the silicon. Unfortunately, my process doesn't remove the metal layers cleanly, but causes them to come off in chaotic tangles. Since I wasn't interested in tracing the circuitry layer-by-layer, this wasn't a significant problem.

With the metal layers and polysilicon removed, I was left with the bare silicon. At this point, the underlying structure of the chip is visible. The doped silicon regions show the transistors, although they are extremely small at this scale. The white rectangles are capacitors. The chip has capacitors for many reasons: producing the right resonant frequency with the antenna, filtering the power, and boosting the voltage with charge pumps.

The die after stripping it down to the silicon.

The die after stripping it down to the silicon.

My biggest concern while processing this chip was to avoid losing it. With a chip this small, bumping the chip or even breathing on it can send the chip flying perhaps never to be seen again. Even trying to pick up the chip with tweezers is risky, since it can easily pop out and disappear. It's no fun examining the floor, inch by inch, trying to figure out if a speck is the lost chip or a bit of dirt. I found that the best way to move the chip between processing and a microscope slide was to put the chip in a few drops of water and move it with a pipette. Even so, there were a couple of times that I lost track of the chip and had to check some specks under the microscope to determine which was the chip and which were dirt.

Overview of the chip

The block diagram below shows the high-level structure of the chip. At the left, the antenna is connected to the RF interface, the analog circuitry that converts the high-frequency signals into digital data. This circuitry also extracts power from the antenna's signal to power the chip.

Block diagram of the MIFARE Ultralight chip, from the datasheet.

Block diagram of the MIFARE Ultralight chip, from the datasheet.

The majority of the chip contains digital logic to process the 18 different commands that it can receive from the reader. Some commands, such as Wake-up or Halt control the chip's state. Other commands, such as Read or Write provide access to the EEPROM storage. The specialized Read_Cnt and Incr_Cnt commands access the chip's counters.

The chip has an "intelligent anticollision function" that allows multiple cards to be read without conflict if they are presented to the reader simultaneously. If a conflict is detected, the reader uses a standard NFC algorithm to select the cards one at a time, based on their identification numbers. The anticollision algorithm uses four of the chip's commands.

Finally, the chip has an EEPROM to store its data. Unlike RAM, the EEPROM holds data even when unpowered; it is designed to hold data for 10 years. To store data in the EEPROM, it must be written with a higher voltage than the rest of the chip uses. The EEPROM interface circuit produces the necessary signals.

The diagram shows the chip with its functional blocks labeled. The majority of the die is occupied with digital logic; I'll explain below how it is implemented with standard-cell logic. At the top is the EEPROM, a square of storage cells. To the right of the EEPROM is a charge pump, a circuit to boost the voltage through switched capacitors. The EEPROM interface circuitry is between the EEPROM and the digital logic.

The die, stripped down to the silicon, with presumed functional blocks labeled.

The die, stripped down to the silicon, with presumed functional blocks labeled.

The remainder of the chip contains analog circuitry that is harder to interpret, so my labels are somewhat speculative. The four bond pads are where the antenna is connected to the chip. There are four pads to support two parallel antennas if desired. The first die photo shows the metal wiring between the bond pads and the structures that I've labeled as RF transistors and RF diodes. The "RF transistors" in the upper left are large, oval-shaped structures. These may be the transistors that send data back to the reader by modifying the load. Alternatively, they could be Zener diodes to regulate the voltage powering the chip, since Zener diodes often have an oval shape. The "RF diodes" at the bottom may rectify the signal from the antenna, producing the power for the chip. The rectified signal is also demodulated and processed by the analog logic to extract the digital data sent from the reader.

Sending data from the tag to the reader: load modulation

You might expect the tag to send data back to the receiver by transmitting a signal through the antenna. However, transmitting a signal takes power and the tag doesn't have much power available, just the power that it extracts from the reader's signal. Instead, the tag uses a clever technique called load modulation to send data to the reader. The idea is that if the tag changes the load across the antenna, it will absorb more or less energy from the reader. The reader can detect this change as a small variation in voltage across its transmitting antenna. Thus, the tag can dynamically change its load to send data back to the reader. Even though the signal produced by load modulation is extremely weak (80 dB less than the transmitted signal), the reader can detect it and extract the data.

In more detail, the reader transmits at a carrier frequency of 13.56 MHz.10 To send data back, the tag switches its load on and off at 848 kHz (1/16 of the carrier frequency), producing a subcarrier on top of the reader's signal. To transmit bits, this load modulation is switched on or off to transmit 106 kilobits per second (1/8 of the modulation frequency). The reader, in turn, extracts the subcarrier with a filter to receive the data bits from the tag.

An NFC tag can apply a load that is either a resistor or a capacitor; a resistor absorbs the signal directly, while a capacitor changes the antenna's resonant frequency and thus the amount of signal transferred to the tag. The die contains many capacitors, but I didn't see any significant resistors, so I suspect that this chip uses a capacitor for the load.

The chip's manufacturing process

The image below shows an extreme closeup of the die. The red box surrounds a region of doped silicon, forming five MOS transistors in series. Each dark vertical line corresponds to the gate of one transistor so the width of this line corresponds to the feature size. I estimate that the chip's feature size is 180 nm. In comparison, the wavelength of visible light is 400-700 nm. Since the features are smaller than the wavelength of light, it's not surprising that image appears blurry.

A closeup of the die, pushing the limits of my microscope.

A closeup of the die, pushing the limits of my microscope.

The 180 nm process was popular in the late 1990s. These features are very large, however, compared to recent chips with features that are a few nanometers across. At the time the MIFARE Ultralight EV1 chip was released (October 2012), the newest semiconductor manufacturing process was 22 nm, so the 180 nm process they used was old even then.

However, it makes sense that the chip would be manufactured with an older process for several reasons. First, much of the chip's area is occupied by analog circuitry and the four bond pads, so shrinking the digital logic won't reduce the overall size much. Moreover, a significantly smaller chip would be impractical to attach to the antenna; I expect even the current chip is a pain to mount. Finally, this chip is designed for the extremely low-cost (i.e. disposable) market, so the chip is manufactured as inexpensively as possible. With a more modern process, more chips would fit on a wafer, dropping the price, but manufacturing each wafer would be more expensive, so there is a tradeoff.

Standard-cell logic

The chip's digital circuitry is implemented with standard-cell logic, a common way of implementing digital logic. The idea behind standard-cell logic is to use automated tools to create the chip layout from a description of the desired logic. The process starts with a library of standard cells. Each cell is a standardized implementation of a simple circuit such as a NAND gate or a flip-flop. The cells are designed so they have a fixed height and can be arranged in rows. The cells are then connected by metal wiring on top of the cells to produce the desired circuitry. Although the resulting circuitry isn't as dense and efficient as a fully customized and optimized layout, standard cell logic is much faster (and thus cheaper) to design than a hand-tuned layout. Thus, standard-cell logic has been heavily used for integrated circuit design since the 1980s.

The photo below shows four rows of gates implemented with standard cell logic, The chip (like most modern chips) uses CMOS logic, with each logic gate built from two types of transistors: NMOS and PMOS. To simplify manufacturing, the NMOS and PMOS transistors are arranged in separate rows. Thus, each row of logic consists of a row of PMOS transistors on top and a row of NMOS transistors below, or vice versa. Due to the physics of semiconductors, the PMOS transistors are larger, which allows the transistor types to be distinguished in the image.

A closeup of the standard cell logic.

A closeup of the standard cell logic.

Looking at some of the cells and extrapolating, I estimate about 8000 gates in the logic section with about 45,000 transistors. One question is if the chip is implemented as a hardcoded state machine, or if it contains a processor (microcontroller). The transistor count is barely large enough to implement a simple microcontroller such as an 8051, but that wouldn't leave many transistors left over for other necessary circuitry. If a microcontroller were present, it would need software stored somewhere. Given the simplicity of the protocol and the relatively small number of transistors, my guess is that the chip is implemented in hardware (state machines and counters) rather than through a microcontroller.

The diagram below shows how a standard cell implements a 2-input NAND. (This cell is from the Intel 386, not the NFC chip, but the structures are similar.) The cell contains four transistors. The yellow region is the P-type silicon that forms two PMOS transistors; the transistor gates are where the polysilicon (red) crosses the yellow region. (The middle yellow region is the drain for both transistors; there is no discrete boundary between the transistors.) Likewise, the two NMOS transistors are at the bottom, where the polysilicon (red) crosses the active silicon (green). The blue lines indicate the metal wiring for the cell. The black circles are contacts, connections between the metal and the silicon or polysilicon. Finally, the well taps are the opposite type of silicon, connected to the underlying silicon well or substrate to keep it at the proper voltage.

A standard cell for NAND in the Intel 386.

A standard cell for NAND in the Intel 386.


The chip stores its data in an EEPROM, similar to flash memory. The chip provides 640 or 1312 bits of EEPROM, based on the part number; I believe both versions use the same EEPROM implementation, but the cheaper version limits the amount that can be used. I think the EEPROM is the matrix shown below, with row and column drive circuitry to the right and below. (The diagonal lines are accidental scratches while I was processing the chip.)

A closeup of the presumed EEPROM circuitry on the die.

A closeup of the presumed EEPROM circuitry on the die.

In the photo, the EEPROM appears to be a 64×64 grid, 4K bits of storage rather than the advertised 1312 bits. There are several possible explanations. First, I could be miscounting the capacity (it is easy to be off by a factor of 2, depending on the cell structure). Second, the chip stores data that isn't reflected in the EEPROM memory map; for instance, the one-way counters and the UID signature are not included in the EEPROM storage count. Another possibility is that the extra EEPROM space holds code for a microcontroller (if the chip has one).

An EEPROM requires a relatively high voltage (10-20V) to force electrons into the storage cell for a bit. This voltage is generated by a charge pump circuit that switches capacitors at high frequency to boost the voltage. To the right of the EEPROM is a circuit with several large capacitors, presumably the charge pump.


It's remarkable that these NFC chips can be manufactured so cheaply that they are disposable. To keep the price down, the chips are sold by the wafer and then mounted in the tickets.11 You can buy an eight-inch silicon wafer with the chips for $9000 from Digikey. This may seem expensive until you realize that a single wafer provides an astonishing 100,587 chips, yielding a per-chip price of nine cents. According to the datasheet, a wafer has 103,682 potential good dies per wafer (PGDW). Some dies will be faulty, of course, so the wafer comes with a file telling you which dies are the good ones, 97% of them. (During the manufacturing of a typical chip, the faulty ones are marked with a spot of ink. But that won't work in this case since each die is much smaller than an ink spot.) If you need more chips, you can buy a 12" wafer for $19,000, providing 215,712 chips. A ticket manufacturer mounts each chip on an antenna sheet and then prints the ticket, adding a few cents to the cost of the ticket. The result is an inexpensive ticket that can be used once and discarded.

I'll leave you with one last die photo. In my first attempt at processing the chip, I treated it with Armour Etch. Although this failed to remove the passivation layer, it thinned it slightly, enough to generate some wild colors due to thin-film interference. I call this the "tie die".

The die after treatment with Armour Etch.

The die after treatment with Armour Etch.

Follow me on Twitter @kenshirriff or RSS for more. I'm also on Mastodon as If you're interested in this type of chip, a few years ago, I looked at two RFID race timing chips, the Monza R4 and Monza R6.

Notes and references

  1. Because the card and the reader are positioned close together, the two antennas use "inductive coupling", coupled by magnetic fields rather than radio waves. That is, the two antennas act like transformer windings, transmitting the signal from the reader to the card. 

  2. The Montreal subway uses multiple types of cards. In this blog post, I examine the Occasional card (L'Occasionnelle). This is a non-rechargeable card that works for a single trip or up to three days, and then is discarded. For long-term usage, Montreal uses the Opus card, which provides more security and implements the Calypso standard. An Opus card is plastic rather than paper, giving it a longer life. The Calypso standard is much more secure, using cryptography such as AES, DES, and ECC (spec) and provides much larger EEPROM storage. Thus, the transit system uses the Occasional card for cheap, disposable tickets and the Opus card for a long-term ticket, where spending a dollar or two on the physical card isn't an issue.

    I haven't examined an Opus card, so I don't know what type of chip it uses or even who manufactures the chip. Many companies produce Calypso cards, for instance, the STMicroelectronics CD21 Calypso chip is based on an Arm core. 

  3. If you look closely at the lower right corner of the NFC card, it has three positions that can hold a chip, with the chip in position #3. Presumably, this allows three different NFC chips to be mounted in one card, so one card could have three functions. The NFC protocol is designed to avoid collisions if multiple chips respond, so the three chips won't interfere with each other. 

  4. You can easily examine NFC cards like this using your phone, with an app such as NFC Tools or NXP's Taginfo. Tapping a card will display the type of the card and allow the memory to be read (subject to security restrictions). It's entertaining to tap various NFC cards and see what type of chip they use; I found that hotels typically use the MIFARE Classic chip, more advanced than the MIFARE Ultralight chip in the subway ticket.

    The NFC Tools app shows that this card is a MIFARE Ultralight EV1.

    The NFC Tools app shows that this card is a MIFARE Ultralight EV1.


  5. The part number, as provided by the chip, is MF0UL1101DUx. "MF0UL" indicates the MIFARE Ultralight EV1, a chip in the Ultralight family manufactured by NXP. An "H" if present indicates 50 pF input capacitance, rather than 17 pF in the chip I examined, allowing a different antenna. Next, "1" indicates a chip with 384 bits of user memory, while "2" would indicate 1024 bits. This is followed by "101D", and then a code indicating the specific package: "U" indicates a wafer, while "A" indicates a plastic leadless module carrier (LCC). Other characters specify the wafer diameter and thickness. 

  6. It is instructive to think about the security of a printed ticket for a concert with a barcode. You could print out a hundred copies of the ticket, but it will only get you into the concert once. (This assumes that the venue has a centralized database so they can keep track of which tickets have been scanned.) Most of the security is implemented in the backend system, not the ticket itself. The ticket numbers need to be unforgeable, either by generating random numbers or using cryptography. (If the tickets just have QR codes with the numbers 1 to 100, for instance, it would be trivial to make fake tickets.) Moreover, there is nothing to ensure that the person scanning the ticket is legitimate; someone malicious could scan your ticket in line, print out a copy, and get into the concert instead of you. The MIFARE Ultralight chip is similar to a paper ticket in many ways with only slightly more security. 

  7. The UID signing is done with an ECC (elliptic-curve cryptography) algorithm. Note that the chip doesn't need any cryptographic support for this; the chip just holds the signature that was programmed during manufacturing. As far as the chip is concerned, it is just providing some stored bytes. 

  8. The MIFARE Ultralight has enough security to work as a limited-use ticket, but more advanced applications such as reloadable stored-value cards require a chip that supports encryption such as the DESFire. This allows the market to be partitioned, with the inexpensive Ultralight supporting the low-end market, while the more costly DESFire is required for more advanced applications.

    There are many types of MIFARE cards and it's hard to keep them straight, but the diagram below from NXP may help. The different families are arranged left to right: Ultralight, Classic, Plus, DESFire, and SmartMX. The Y dimension indicates the official security certification level. The Z dimension (front to back) shows the evolution within a family over time. I've added a red arrow to indicate the "Ultralight EV1" chip, the focus of this blog post. (Personally, if you need a three-dimensional diagram to explain your product line, the product line may be excessively complicated.)

    The various MIFARE NFC types. Diagram from aMIFARE Plus Product Family.

    The various MIFARE NFC types. Diagram from aMIFARE Plus Product Family.


  9. In more detail, a 3-byte counter can be incremented by a specified value until it reaches the all-1's state (0xFFFFFF), at which point it stops. If you wanted to allow, say, 5 uses of a ticket, you could initialize the counter to all-1's minus 5. Then the counter could be incremented 5 times before reaching the limit.

    One complication is that the counters have an "anti-tearing" feature for additional security. The problem is that if you tear the card away from the reader in the middle of an update, there is a possibility for counters to be partially updated, yielding a bad result. The anti-tearing feature ensures that a counter will be atomically updated, avoiding a partial update. 

  10. There are multiple NFC standards with differences in speed, protocol, and range, including NFC-A, NFC-B, NFC-C, NFC-F, and NFC-V. The MIFARE Ultralight cards use NFC-A, which is defined by the standard "ISO/IEC 14443 Type A". Annoyingly, each part of the standard costs $70. The NFC Forum Analog Technical Specification provides a lot of detail, though. 

  11. Instead of a wafer, you can buy the chips on tape but it costs more than twice as much. 


Paul McJones said...

You say: "If you look closely, you can see the tiny NFC chip in the lower left, a black speck connected to two sides of the antenna wire." Actually, it's in the lower right, as mentioned in footnote 3.

Ken Shirriff said...

Paul: thanks, I've fixed that.

Tim said...

Thanks for this, really interesting. Maybe I missed it, but is there any technical reason that my phone can't be my Opus card? Now that we can use our phones to update Opus cards, it seems redundant to add fares to an intermediary card, but I suspect there's a good answer?

Demisel said...

@Tim :
A phone writing on a smartcard is quite similar to a vending machine writing on a smartcard.
Trusting anyone's phone to emulate a smartcard requires a lot more security layers and infrastructure.

Luca Perencin | NoLABS said...

Thanks so much! Very interesting: look like is the same chip used in the train card here in Italy. (a one-time ticket but that can be reused, recharged). I'm going to investigate more ...

kan chun said...

Thanks Ken, good article and i learned a lot about NFC chip, technology really advanced.

Anonymous said...

Ultimately the problem is trust - data stored in a phone can be tampered with much more easily than a plastic card, which increases the attack surface (however cost ineffective it is to hack your transit card...). Your example still abides by this principle - when you charge your card with your phone, I bet that what's happening behind the scenes is that the app opens a websocket to a server owned by the transit operator, which emulates a terminal. Your phone is just a dumb tunnel for NFC traffic. At least it works this way in my country.

Anyway, even though this is more difficult, some transit operators still did it. In Paris you can pay using your phone directly, and I haven't taken the time to research it throughly, but it works even when you're on airplane mode and it was heavily implied that it's a direct emulation of the Navigo card.

Steve S. said...

Fascinating peek into this NFC chip. I'd like to see the process of transferring each individual chip to a card to make a working ticket. How does a machine even hold these things?
Thanks, Ken, for being so inquisitive and willing to share all your hard work!

Ken Shirriff said...

Steve, there are die pick-and-place machines that can rapidly move dies that are even smaller than this one. There's a video of one in action here. A similar machine probably assembles the tickets, although I wouldn't be surprised if poorly paid offshore workers did the job manually instead.

Anonymous said...

Awesome teardown. "In the photo, the EEPROM appears to be a 64×64 grid, 4K bits of storage rather than the advertised 1312 bits." Due to processing variations (especially with CMP) the cells at the edge of a memory array often behave a little differently than the ones in a more consistent environment. So designers often add a few dummy rows and columns on all sides to make the main array consistent. There are also probably some redundancy sectors or other sectors that are physically there, but not visible to the end user.

Abrasive said...

You note that the 4K EEPROM array is much bigger than the ~1.3K known stored data. Perhaps this is all part of the anti-tearing functionality? Having a second copy of everything is far and away the easiest way to make that happen, and the array is twice the known data size, rounded up to power of 2, right?

Anonymous said...

It worth mentioning that although the NFC standard defined the anti-collision algorithm, many poor implementations did not make use of it and could only recognize the first card enter the field.

Anonymous said...

Me and my friends used an NFC read/write app on our phones to change the data on the disposable compass cards after they were used. I still have a card that rick rolls whoever scans the card with the NFC reader on their phones XD

Anonymous said...

That's totally awesome! When it comes to reading comments, I'm never gonna give yours up... 🎶👨🏽‍💼

Frank Wilhoit said...

A little out of your wheelhouse, but it would be nice if someone could give an overview, in this kind of style, of the present state of the smart-card ecosystem. I worked in that space in the late 1990s and hold a patent for a points-based stored-value system. We must think that all of the art of that time, crafted to work around underpowered hardware, has today been completely superseded.

Alexandre said...

Thank you for taking the time to write this amazing article !

Dr Jaymz said...

I still find it hard to believe that it can write to eeprom by generating the higher voltage - when there is so little power available and the coupling to the antenna is a bit dodgy its amazing it works so well.

Anonymous said...

I would love to know if you have more information about this:

"In more detail, the reader transmits at a carrier frequency of 13.56 MHz.10 To send data back, the tag switches its load on and off at 848 kHz (1/16 of the carrier frequency), producing a subcarrier on top of the reader's signal."

Mainly my question is: how can the chip modulate at a lower frequency without having an internal clock? Or does it detect and count the periods in the received signal?
Or does it contain an oscillating circuit for that lower frequency which acts as a passive clock?

Ken Shirriff said...

Anonymous: I'm pretty sure that the reader is clocked from the carrier frequency that it receives. If it had its own clock, the two signals would be out of phase or might drift, which would be bad.

Anonymous said...

Cool! Thank you so much. I very much enjoyed this article

Ken Shirriff said...

One random thing I just noticed about the Montreal tickets. The 15-digit number on the back of the ticket is the serial number of the RFID chip, converted from hex to decimal and prefixed with "01-". Specifically, it is UID6 through UID1 (excluding UID0).

And on the Washington DC metro card, the 20-digit number on the card matches the serial number of the RFID chip if you remove the first 4 digits (0167) and the last digit (check digit?). Specifically, it is UID1 through UID6, the reverse order compared to Montreal. Little-endian vs big-endian!

Anonymous said...

The EEPROM may be stored in triplicate for error correction, with three bits cleared/set for each 0/1 bit written and, on read, the majority wins (i.e. sum 0/1 reads as 0; sum 1/2 reads as 1). 4096/3 is very close to the advertised EEPROM size.