The answer to the mystery of what Apple was about in paying $20 million for licensing rights to Liquidmetal Technologies’ “amorphous metal alloys” nearly two years ago may soon be revealed.
On Wednesday the Apple blogosphere lit up over a new rumor reported by Korean journal ETNews’s Kim In-soon that the next iPhone will swap the iPhone 4 series’ glass case material for Liquidmetal alloy, the new design to be unveiled at is expected to be unveiled at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in June. The high-tech alloy is said in the report to have an outer surface smooth like liquid, and would reportedly allow a thinner, lighter from factor that would also be more resistant to impact damage.
In-soon also reports that the Samsung Galaxy S3, scheduled to be unveiled in London in May 3, will have a ceramic main body. made by applying heat to a non-metallic inorganic substance, is extremely light and comfortable to grip.
Michael Nace has already addressed the potential veracity or otherwise of this rumor or otherwise at some length, but what of the material itself? What is Liquidmetal”
Liquidmetal was developed by a California Institute of Technology research team that later organized themselves into the Liquidmetal Technologies firm. Despite the name, Liquidmetal alloys are not liquid, but solid at room temperature, and are claimed to be hard-wearing and able to withstand thermal cycling, along with a constellation of other desirable material features including high tensile strength, excellent corrosion resistance, very high coefficient of restitution and excellent anti-wearing characteristics, while being able to be heat-formed in processes similar to thermoplastics. Liquidmetal, which was introduced for commercial applications in 2003, has reportedly been used to make golf clubs, golf balls, watches, covers of cell phones the cores of skis, baseball and softball bats, and tennis racquets.
According to Wikipedia, Liquidmetal technology has been used for making the SIM ejector tool of some iPhone 3Gs shipped in the US — done by Apple as an exercise to test the viability of usage of the metal. The alloy is claimed to retain a scratch-free surface longer than competing materials, while facilitating the molding of complex shapes — qualities that suit it to being used as protective coating for industrial machinery, petroleum drill pipes and power plant boiler tubes, and allow it to be considered as a replacement for titanium in applications ranging from medical instruments and cars to military and aerospace hardware.
More specifically, the explanation of Liquidmetal alloys’ properties notes that they contain atoms of significantly different sizes that form a dense mix with low free volume, and unlike crystalline metals, there is no obvious melting point at which viscosity drops suddenly. Rather they behave more like glass, in that viscosity drops gradually with increased temperature, and at high temperatures it behaves in a plastic manner, allowing mechanical properties to be controlled relatively easily during casting.
Because these alloys have relatively low softening temperatures (400 °C/752 °F for the earliest formulation), they can be molded, and allow casting of complicated shapes without need of finishing with material properties immediately after casting being much better than when casting with conventional metals, which usually need a lot of post-casting finish work. They also have low shrinkage during cooling. Liquidmetal can be formed into complex shapes using processes similar to ones used with thermoplastics, making Liquidmetal a potential replacement for many applications where plastics might otherwise be used.
Parallels with Apple’s interest in and development of cast aluminum “unibody” technology seem obvious, and if Liquidmetal iPhone enclosures prove successful, it would seem likely that the material and technique would be expanded for use with other Apple products as well, perhaps displacing the expensive and demanding process of machining device housings from a single piece of aluminum altogether. Casting should be significantly cheaper and faster than machining for volume production, and with Liquidmetal’s other desirable qualities, the upside for both Apple and for end-users could be substantial.
As for that June WWDC release date, as of this morning (April 19) a Bing search for “Apple Worldwide Developers Conference 2012″ brings up only the WWDC 2011 link, which suggests that the June 11 date for the conference to open is looking a bit overly optimistic. It’s been speculated that WWDC might get pushed back to July or August this year. We’ll see.