Star product: Arjowiggins PowerCoat Alive NFC Smart Card Insert

Simon Eccles
Friday, October 22, 2021

A recyclable alternative to potentially wasteful plastic smart cards.

What does it do?
PowerCoat Alive NFC is a paper-based alternative to plastic smart cards developed by Arjowiggins Smart Papers. It is a sustainable and 100%-recyclable paper inlay that forms the core of a card, with NFC (near-field communication) circuitry printed by conductive inks rather than formed from aluminium.

The circuits respond to being brought close to an NFC reader (sometimes built into a smartphone). No battery is needed in the card. 

Arjowiggins can supply blank card material to suitably equipped security printers, though it mostly expects to handle the creation and printing of the card circuitry itself. It can either complete the process as laminated finished cards, or supply the inlays to production sites for lamination with facing card, printing and top coat varnishing. 

Arjowiggins head of R&D Gael Depres says that “it offers the same functionality and performance as before, responding to NFC, with the added benefit of being eco-friendly”.

When was it launched and what market is it aimed at? 
Arjowiggins first introduced PowerCoat Alive as an NFC aluminium-free product in 2014. PowerCoat is a cellulose based paper with a special coating that can accept very fine printed silver circuits and chips, with low absorbency meaning minimal inks are needed. Alive is what the product is called once the circuits are printed. What’s new is the Smart Card inlay creation and production service, launched earlier this year. 

Target applications are those that need secure authentication, such as travel cards, access control badges, hotel key cards, warranty certificates, gift cards, loyalty cards and leisure passes. The cards are completely secure as the circuitry cannot be removed and applied to anything else. Plastic will still be needed where long-term durability is needed, but laminated and varnished paper is fine for many other applications. 

How does it work?
Arjowiggins is able to print the circuitry to order at its Guarro Casas mill in Spain. Alternatively, if the customer has the printing capability in place, it can supply blank paper substrate directly.

Circuits are printed by flexography using water-based conductive ink. “The ink is infused with a conductive material and acts as a liquid medium that can flow freely while building a chain of conductive materials behind it,” says Depres. “Once the ink dries, it locks the conductive particles in place, leaving a completed electrical circuit.”

This ink is only used where needed and can be removed during the recycling process, unlike plastic cards which are etched with aluminium circuits in a process that typically generates a lot of waste. 

“Arjowiggins paper-based alternative is both non-polluting and fully recyclable,” the firm claims. A plastic film laminate isn’t necessary for protection as the cards can be finished with a water-based varnish that is water resistant and durable. This ensures the cards remain fully recyclable. It is also possible to separate the fibres from the ink, so nothing is rejected during the recycling process.

The smart cards are supplied to order, with lead times depending on the size of the order and the type of chip the customer wants to use. Typically, orders are completed within weeks, rather than months, the company says. 

The material is supplied as either finished cards, or the inlay can be supplied on 350mm wide reels for further processing. 

Arjowiggins can supply a complete solution to order if required. The printed inlay can be seamlessly laminated with any other paper and board using a water-based glue, and the outer surfaces can be printed and finished as required. Alternatively it will just supply the paper inlay with or without circuits and the customer can do the rest. 

What’s the USP?
The big message is the replacement of plastic with sustainable and recyclable FSC-certified paper, plus the replacement of aluminium with less wasteful conductive ink for the circuits. Some 37.1bn cards were made worldwide last year, the vast majority being plastic. Most are disposed of in landfills or incinerators, generating pollution. 

What support is offered?
Arjowiggins offers technical information and support to producers. 

What does it cost?
There’s no price list as costs are very dependent on quantities and processes ordered, says the company. However it offers a comparison to conventional plastic smart cards: “In terms of cost of materials and production, print versus plastic, when reaching 10 million units, prices will become more or less the same. Below that quantity they work out that the cost of the complete paper card is 5%-10% higher than the plastic card.” 


Blank paper roll size 325mm wide x 500m 
Pre-printed card layouts 2-up, 4-up, 21-up, 25-up, 54-up and others on request
Certification FSC
Price comparisons Costs are similar to plastic cards for quantities of 10m and above. 5%-10% higher than plastic below that
Contact Arjowiggins

NFC & its alternatives

NFC (near-field communication) is a set of international standards for communication between two electronic devices over a distance of 4cm or less. Typically when used in smart cards it is tapped against a reader, but close proximity is usually enough to work. 

Practical implementations started in the mid-2000s, but it is only in recent years that it has come into widespread use, with for instance the NFC emulation in smartphones rapidly replacing the use of plastic Oyster Cards on London’s transport network. Most new bank and credit cards now use NFC for one-tap payments, which is why the visible silver RFID chip and pin circuits are disappearing. 

NFC is also replacing magnetic stripes on hotel keys and store cards as well as bank cards. 

Although mostly used for relatively simple transaction confirmation or security passes, NFC can store a small amount of any type of digital data, but it is fixed at the point of initial encoding of the circuits. 

This contrasts with the other widely used short-range communication technology, Bluetooth, which creates a live network between devices and can transmit streamed data (e.g. music or phone calls). NFC is limited to about 4cm gaps and a bandwidth of 424kbits/second, compared with Bluetooth Low Energy with transmission of 1 MBit/second over ranges up to 50m. On the other hand an NFC circuit typically costs about 7p while a Bluetooth Low Energy chip is about £3.70.


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