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Next-Gen iPhone May Be Baptized in Liquidmetal

By Richard Adhikari MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Apr 19, 2012 2:43 PM PT

Apple will use so-called Liquidmetal for the casing of the iPhone 5, which will be launched in June, according to Korea IT News.

Next-Gen iPhone May Be Baptized in Liquidmetal

Liquidmetal is the commercial name of an amorphous metal alloy developed by researchers at the California Institute of Technology and marketed by a company they set up called Liquidmetal Technologies.

The alloy's been used in more than 10 million hinges for mobile phones and smartphones, more than 2 million antennae, over 2 million cases and more than 1 million pounds of coatings materials.

Apple purchased a worldwide exclusive license to commercialize Liquidmetal Technologies' intellectual property in the field of consumer electronics, according to the latter's 10-K report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission in March.

"With the license, Apple's highly likely to use the technology in future mobile devices, including the iPhone, iPad or even the MacBook Air," Jim McGregor, president of Tirias Research, told MacNewsWorld. "Liquidmetal offers a lightweight solution that has all the characteristics of metal and can be an attractive alternative to plastics."

Apple did not respond to our request for comment for this story.

What Is Liquidmetal, Anyhow?

Liquidmetal alloys contain atoms of different sizes that form a dense mix with very little free volume. Unlike crystalline metals, they don't have an obvious melting point. At high temperatures, Liquidmetal behaves like plastic. Because of their non-crystalline, or amorphous, structures, Liquidmetals are harder than titanium or aluminum alloys used in similar applications.

Liquidmetal alloys can be heat-formed the same way plastics can, up to a point.

Another term for heat-forming Liquidmetal is metal injection molding, Kevin Keller, a senior principal analyst at IHS iSuppli, told MacNewsWorld. Metal injection molding "lets you fabricate complex geometries similar to injection molded plastics" but with the advantages of a metal alloy -- strength, rigidity, wear and corrosion resistance, Keller said.

"From a design standpoint, I believe rigidity and durability may be [Liquidmetal's] best benefits," Tirias Research's McGregor said. "I would expect more investment into this and other materials technologies for the casings of all mobile devices."

Issues With Liquidmetal

However, metal injection molding is "still a fairly immature technology, so using it can be quite costly," iSuppli's Keller pointed out.

Apple is already using this technology right now, as are other manufacturers, but its use is "limited to small mechanical internal components such as the SIM card ejector on the previous iPhone as well as other internal components," Keller said

Further, there are "some limitations" to the process in terms of the physical size of products that can be made with metal injection molding because of its relative newness, Keller stated. "Where you have a molten material you're injecting into a die, that material has to be very tightly temperature-controlled and has to be cooled at a certain rate, and it's a matter of working out the techniques."

Where Liquidmetal's Being Used

Liquidmetal is being used in the cores of golf balls, in skis, in baseball and softball bats, and in tennis racquets.

It has been used on the casing of SanDisk's Cruzer Titanium USB flash drives and Sansa flash-based MP3 players. It has also been used in the casings of some mobile phones such as those made by Nokia subsidiary Vertu.

Taking Liquidmetal Into Tomorrow

Apple paid Liquidmetal Technologies US$20 million for the licensing rights to the latter's IP for use in the consumer electronics sector.

Cupertino's likely to work on getting around the size limitations imposed by the metal injection molding process.

"Right now, Apple's exploring the use of this manufacturing technique into more and more components of their products, and possibly even planning to use this technology for larger, more visible components such as the enclosure," iSuppli's Keller said. "Apple is, I'm sure, right now developing techniques to expand this manufacturing process into larger and larger parts like enclosures."

Apple "invested millions of dollars" to move the use of precision aluminum machining up from "turning out low-volume, low-quantity short-run prototyping" into creating unibodies for its MacBooks, Keller pointed out. "We expect Apple will invest the same kind of resources, time and energy into [improving] injection metal molding."

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