OEMs Seek Unbreakable Phones

Joe Stanganelli, Founder and Principal, Beacon Hill Law | 9/11/2013 | 83 comments

Joe Stanganelli
Nietzsche said, "That which does not kill me can only make me stronger." Scientists have recently discovered that this may be literally true in the case of plastics, and it could be a real boon to OEMs.

Researchers affiliated with Duke University have created a new type of plastic that becomes stronger when torn, stretched, or otherwise abused. The secret lies in special mechanophores. Mechanophores are compounds that react to a mechanical stress (as opposed to something like light, or heat, or a chemical).

In a paper published in Nature Chemistry earlier this year (the catchily-titled "Mechanochemical strengthening of a synthetic polymer in response to typically destructive shear forces"), researchers described how -- by carefully arranging a series of carbon and bromine atoms -- a specially enhanced polybutiadiene material could rearrange its molecular structure when under mechanical duress in such a way that new, stronger bonds and chains are formed. In testing, researchers discovered that the material hardened two hundred-fold when it was mechanically stressed.

The principle is the same as that which governs much of the human body. When we exercise effectively, our muscles tear slightly; they become tender and sore. Gradually, however, these muscles replenish themselves where they have torn, rebuilding themselves -- ourselves -- stronger than they were before.

In the case of the researchers' enhanced polymers, the result is something sort of like a science fiction bad guy who just laughs and gets stronger when the heroes attack him, and the heroes are like, "It's not working! He's absorbing the energy!" and the bad guy keeps laughing and is like "Fools!" and then he eats a tank or something, and the heroes have to find another way to defeat him.

[Editor’s Note: The author watched a lot of cartoons in the 80s.]

Here, however, the researchers hope to use this new material for good instead of evil. Possibilities include plastic shopping bags that don't rip, cars and planes that don't get damaged, roads and bridges that stay resilient through the seasons, better reinforced buildings that stay sturdy through natural disasters, and more powerful prosthetics and other biomedical devices.

And, of course, unbreakable smartphones. At least, that's the one that seems to have the tech community most excited.

Smartphones, as anyone who has ever dropped or sat on one knows, are notorious for apparently being constructed of the most fragile material on Earth, including (I'm guessing) the soft spots of babies' heads. Consequently, we buy cheap plastic cases to protect our phones, which help a little bit, but usually not much. Ditto for our tablets and other mobile devices. In a world where mechanophores are adapted for use in smartphone components, we might see the day where accidentally dropping and stepping on your brand new phone doesn't automatically mean a trip to the repair shop.

“The idea that you can take destructive energy and turn it into constructive energy is pretty exciting,” says Stephen Craig, a Duke University chemistry professor whose research group, the Craig Group, worked on the project.

Of course, the Craig Group's work is not the stuff of infinite strength and unlimited power. Although the researchers did not push their enhanced material to its limits, Craig acknowledges that at some point the material would exhaust its ability to form new bonds; at that point, real damage would begin to accrue from mechanical stress. Besides which, the Group's work is far from over. The next step, says Craig, is to figure out how to reverse the hardening process to keep materials soft and flexible for shock resistance.

Indeed, the Craig Group's work has been cited as one example of why some OEMs have invested so much in plastics engineering and other high-ends materials science. Plastic is lightweight, it can be cheaply produced, it can be molded into complex shapes (even being utilized in 3D printing), and it is strong -- stronger, it turns out, than we could have previously imagined.

What with their flexibility and sustainability, high-end polymers are not just the materials of today's enterprise; they are the materials of the future.

View Comments: Newest First | Oldest First | Threaded View
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Susan Nunziata   OEMs Seek Unbreakable Phones   9/29/2013 8:56:00 PM
Re: new plastics
@Broadway: Hahahahaaaaaa. I can't wait to see the headline now.

"Google Glass Crook: E2 Made Me Do It"

Broadway   OEMs Seek Unbreakable Phones   9/29/2013 8:50:48 PM
Re: new plastics
@susan, if I end up pulling off this google glasses mugging, let it be known that like heavy metal music, the content of this website turned me to the dark side. I will use it in my courtroom defense!
Susan Nunziata   OEMs Seek Unbreakable Phones   9/29/2013 4:24:00 PM
Re: new plastics
@Broadway. Too funny. I can't wait until the video of the mugging goes viral.

The_Phil   OEMs Seek Unbreakable Phones   9/23/2013 8:02:57 PM
Re: new plastics
I won't. Not to say I won't put in a good word to the judge though...
David Wagner   OEMs Seek Unbreakable Phones   9/23/2013 6:26:49 PM
Re: new plastics
@Broadway- I never thought of that. Maybe it had aged, gotten motion sick and just jumped off to avoid more punishment. I feel bad now. i totaly should have been more careful with it.

Clearly though, i'm bad to hats. I lost the replacement hat when i left it in a beach bag and it molded. I tried to wash it, but it never returned to its previous shape.

The next one, which I've only had for a few a months has already developed a strange cockeyed brim. i don't know if it is the hat or something about my head making it happen. :)
Broadway   OEMs Seek Unbreakable Phones   9/23/2013 6:23:04 PM
Re: new plastics
@David, that is a sad sad story and one that makes me wonder about the sensitivities of inanimate objects. Maybe that hat simply had no more roller coasters and softball games in it.
Broadway   OEMs Seek Unbreakable Phones   9/23/2013 6:20:38 PM
Re: new plastics
I think the mugging would make Fox News and would cause Google to rethink their design. How safe can they be if a slow, middle-aged man can catch up and blindside a user and steal them? Ultimately, it would be a public service.
David Wagner   OEMs Seek Unbreakable Phones   9/23/2013 5:47:12 PM
Re: new plastics
@Broadway- Good for you. At least you didn't lose it in vain. I had a baseball hat I truly loved and had owned for well over a decade. it had worn in perfectly and had years of dirt and sweat on it from great softball games. It had probably been on hundreds of roller coasters and never fell off my head.

i took it on a tiny baby coaster with my then 4 year old daughter. For some reason, it fell on this tiny roller coaster and was lost forever to the abyss.

I didn't mind losing the thing so much as that it gave up its life on such a tiny thing. if your stuff makes a sacrifice, it shold be worth it. :)
Susan Nunziata   OEMs Seek Unbreakable Phones   9/23/2013 3:05:54 PM
Re: new plastics
@Broadway: that will be easy. They'll never see you coming because they're too busy looking at their google glasses.

Go for it. Let us know how that turns out. I'm sure the E2 community will rally together and raise your bail money if necessary.
Broadway   OEMs Seek Unbreakable Phones   9/23/2013 2:07:23 PM
Re: new plastics
@Susan, I am not a watch guy, so I was thinking of Google Glasses --- even if I have to mug one of the few people who currently have them ; )

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