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Metallic glass could make iPhones harder to break

April 20, 2012|By Michelle Maltais
  • Liquidmetal was born in a lab at Caltech in Pasadena.
Liquidmetal was born in a lab at Caltech in Pasadena. (Los Angeles Times )

If Apple does use metallic glass in its next iPhone, you might not have to keep hiding the device from your toddler and clumsy cousin and actually hand it over to them with some confidence. 

That's because it takes a licking and keeps on ticking. Liquidmetal, or metallic glass, looks like glass but is far from fragile. It can resist bending, scratching, denting and shattering, according to the scientists responsible.

We spoke with William Johnson and Marios Demetriou, the lead researchers on this material at Caltech, as Liquidmetal gets renewed attention following a report in Korean IT News that Apple is experimenting with it for upcoming devices.

Here's what they told us about this cool metal.

First off, to separate a bit of science fact from science fiction, it's not an incarnation of Montgomery Scott's transparent aluminum from "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home." Liquidmetal is not transparent. As Johnson put it very bluntly, "if it were transparent, it would not be a metal." So there you go. 

It is, however, shiny like glass and looks a bit like stainless steel in terms of color, they said.

When they created it in the Caltech lab in the early 1990s, Johnson said, it was an absolute breakthrough. "We were trying to make metal that formed glass," he said, "to form glass like a window pane."

Liquidmetal is an alloy incorporating zirconium, titanium, nickel, copper and beryllium. These days, there are variations -- some use aluminum, for instance -- but all include zirconium and have five components.

By rapidly cooling the mixture, no crystals form. And that's the goal.

Interestingly enough, Liquidmetal was first introduced to make golf clubs. A number of golfers on the PGA tour actually used them. You can still find Liquidmetal clubs on eBay, where there's a fairly significant aftermarket.

The main reason you don't see Liquidmetal clubs, tennis rackets and baseball bats on sporting goods shelves is that it's fairly expensive to manufacture. The golf club made of the material sold originally for about $650, more than the renowned Big Bertha, said Johnson, Caltech's Ruben F. and Donna Mettler professor of engineering and applied science.

"It's expensive compared to aluminum and steel," Demetriou said. "A little more than titanium, [but] not like silver and gold."

In addition to possibly seeing more Liquidmetal-infused consumer electronics, such as an iPhone, we might see it in someone's toothy grin, according to Demetriou, lecturer in applied physics and materials science. It could be easily applied in dental implants, he said. 

But don't expect to see something the size of a car made of Liquidmetal. "The bigger it is, the harder it is to get the heat out," said Johnson, and the way to keep crystals from forming is to cool the liquid rapidly.

Something that's no more than an inch thick is ideal for this material. So that brings us back to a stronger smartphone. For those of us who are tough on our constant digital companion, that could be good news.

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Liquidmetal could make iPhones harder to break

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