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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David Wagner   OEMs Seek Unbreakable Phones   9/11/2013 5:42:55 PM
Re: Great but expand
@Joe- Spongebob or My Little Pony? :)
David Wagner   OEMs Seek Unbreakable Phones   9/11/2013 5:39:07 PM
Re: new plastics
@SaneIt- They're definitely working on glass that fits your needs. In fact, i thought we covered some here at E2, but I can't find the link. At any rate, I'm not all that excited about unbreakable phones, but I love the idea of using it in cars and other safety intensive areas.
Ariella   OEMs Seek Unbreakable Phones   9/11/2013 4:04:35 PM
Re: Great but expand
@Joe, yes, why not? I remember now writing about surveying equipment that is ruggedized to withstand drops of a few feet on concrete. There's no reason why that kind of protection can't be applied to phones, too.
Joe Stanganelli   OEMs Seek Unbreakable Phones   9/11/2013 3:39:09 PM
Re: Great but expand
Rubber-like cases exist for us adults.  :)  I have one on my phone now.
tinym   OEMs Seek Unbreakable Phones   9/11/2013 2:38:56 PM
Re: new plastics
@Joe I really enjoyed this article. It's been a while since I've seen you around here - welcome back! This new plastic sounds super fantastic. Does it degrade well once thrown out or just get strong over time until it reaches that final breaking point?
impactnow   OEMs Seek Unbreakable Phones   9/11/2013 1:52:44 PM
Great but expand
I think this is great.I would love to see it expanded to include almost a rubberized case for phones and tablets that prevents cracking and chipping they are way too fragile for all the transporting we all do with our tablets. I have only seen these rubber cases for infants would love to see them in adult styles.
Pedro Gonzales   OEMs Seek Unbreakable Phones   9/11/2013 12:22:19 PM
Re: the environment
@soozyg.  I have no idea how materials are manufactured.  Does this really happen when such materials are produced. Hopefully, there are some material science engineer in this community or an industrial engineer and can use this as their next research topic:

improving the manufacturing process of carbon based materials by minimizing their emission in the air.

Pedro Gonzales   OEMs Seek Unbreakable Phones   9/11/2013 12:11:37 PM
Re: new plastics
I agree I see so many people with their screens scratch or broken is unbelievable. Wow, this is a great discovery, this is a discovery that has so many its commercial and practical applications.  We could say the same with tires,  I will like to see this material being applied in glasses, my glasses take a real beating, sometimes I seat on them or forget to put them back in their case before I sleep.
Joe Stanganelli   OEMs Seek Unbreakable Phones   9/11/2013 9:01:08 AM
Re: dynamic duo
@soozyg: Didn't the Harry Potter world have something similar?
Joe Stanganelli   OEMs Seek Unbreakable Phones   9/11/2013 8:59:42 AM
Re: new plastics
@SaneIT: The funny thing for me writing this article is that the case I had for my previous phone was AWESOME.  The first week I had my phone, I dropped and stepped on it a bunch, and it was totally fine with the case I had.

Over the following couple of years, my phone continued to get dropped on sidewalks, in parking lots, on tile floors, etc..  It took a HUGE beating.  The case got scratched up a fair amount in places, and the phone was fine.

Finally, my phone's days became numbered when I dropped it while going up the stairs in a large building atrium.  The phone fell in between the stairs about three stories, straight down onto the hard lobby floor below.  I ran down the stairs.  The home button and the screen had popped a little bit out of the phone and it was completely unworkable, but otherwise the phone -- including the screen -- was unscratched.  I got it repaired the same day.  The antenna and some of the other electronics were messed up after that, so my phone conversations and Internet browsing were spottier, but it was still mostly functional for a while.

Eventually, it went kaput and I had to get a new one, but the case I had was terrific.

Now I have a rubber case, which seems to be okay.  I've dropped my current phone only once on a hard surface since getting it, and the rubber case just let it harmlessly bounce a couple of times.
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