Metallic Glass…Apple Plans Next Materials Revolution

I have argued for some time we seem to be at the front end of a new material science and engineering revolution. Yes, there are daily advances in the cyber and communications space, be it some platform, enhanced processing or graphics functionality or innovative piece of equipment.. all of which has basically been building on the same theme. Much of it however wouldn’t be possible without new materials.

Almost daily, we read of new material compositions and nano-structured and processing, miniturarized components, higher energy-storing or lighter or stronger or more superconductive or more light-to-energy converting materials. The beat goes on! 

Doug Smock, Contributing Editor, Materials and Assembly of Design News, was kind enough to profile (Aug 18th, 2010) another innovative material technology, one that presents some very interesting possibilities for consumer electronics giant Apple (especially with its brand and financial backing)

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Apparently, Apple may have found a solution to its widely reported reception problems for its latest iPhone. It has acquired the rights (from Liquidmetal Technologies of California) to commercialize a new metals technology for consumer electronics applications… essentially a ‘Metallic glass’ or 'amorphous metal'.

Liquid amorphous metals were first reported by scientists at the University of California in 1960.  Amorphous metal technology is said to combine the mechanical benefits of metals with the processing benefits of plastics. One of the first commercial alloys developed at Caltech contained zirconium, titanium, copper, nickel and beryllium. (…You knew expected that rare metals would find there way into this piece)

Con_technology_amorphous2 Con_technology_crystalline2 As Smock reported “Most metals crystallize when cooled  (pictured on the left). Caltech researchers, however, discovered that certain metals remain amorphous if cooled in special ways (pictured on the right) . Amorphous materials such as glass can be brittle – one of the issues Apple researchers may need to address.  The technology, which may still require significant investment by Apple to make it fully processable like a plastic”.  An example of an application and potential benefits could be for “housing for portable electronics devices that would provide the strength and electrical properties of metals with the ability to quickly produce components with complex shapes”.

The latest model of the iPhone featured a metal antenna that surrounded the outside of the device, however it faced a much-publicized technical problem. Could the LiquidMetal amorpohous metal provide the ultimate solution? Possibly. And Liquidmetals also believes this technology could be used in various medical device applications.

The technology of Liquidmetal alloys is proprietary and covered by numerous existing or pending patents. It is understood however that the new alloys optimize the properties for specific applications by tailoring the combination of process, chemistry and atomic structure.

For example, according to the Liquidmetal website “The atomic structure is the most striking characteristic of the Liquidmetal alloys as it fundamentally differentiates Liquidmetal alloys from ordinary metals. The atomic structure of ordinary or conventional metals and alloys is periodic, where the layout of atomic elements shows repeating patterns over an extended range. This atomic structure is called "crystalline" and limits the overall performance of conventional metals.

Liquidmetal alloys possess an "amorphous" atomic structure, which is truly unique. By contrast to the crystalline structure, no discernable patterns exist in the atomic structure of the unique Liquidmetal alloys. As such, properties superior to the limits of conventional metals can be achieved.

This amorphous atomic structure leads to a unique set of characteristic properties for the family of Liquidmetal alloys: High yield strength, High hardness, Superior strength/weight ratio, Superior elastic limit, High corrosion resistance, High wear-resistance, and Unique acoustical properties “

According to Liquidmetal, the unique atomic structure of these new alloys shows yield strengths that approach the theoretical limit and far exceeds the strength currently available in crystalline metals and alloys, more than twice the strength of similar conventional alloys.

 Liquidmetal alloys also claims superior elastic limit; that is "the ability of a material to retain its original shape (memory) after undergoing very high loads and stress. Apparently, by varying chemical composition, some properties within the family of Liquidmetal alloys can apparently be optimized even further." (…Will rare metals find new roles here?)

As I learn more, I’ll share it with you. Until then, the next time you pick up your iPhone or like PDA… just dial up “m-a-t-e-r-i-a-l-s-r-e-v-o-l-u-t-I-o-n”.

If you would like to read Doug Smock’s full article on Design News  or learn more about some of the technology and test results, I would invite you to click on
http://www.designnews.com/article/510175-Apple_Plans_Next_Materials_Revolution.php and http://www.liquidmetal.com/technology/ respectively

Until soon… Ian


  1. Hi,
    This is interesting, but by no means is it new.
    The engineers at Howmet (now part of Alcoa) were working on amorphous metals at least as early as the late 1990s. I visited their plant during that time and saw the bouncing metal ball demo, the production equipment etc.
    The plan was to capture the golf club market with the stuff, but that didn’t happen.
    Here is a link to a 1998 article on the subject.
    http://www.memagazine.org/backissues/membersonly/june98/features/metallic/metallic.html
    So the Apple venture is a re-hash of some earlier ventures, perhaps with a high-tech twist.
    Maybe I’m wrong, but I think it’s a solution looking for a problem. For instance–
    –baseball bats are already dangerous for pitchers. High-tech bats will mean the ball getting through the box even faster than they do now. I read that at least one state’s baseball leagues are looking at switching from aluminum bats back to wood. This is, of course,one big reason why MLB sticks with wood bats.
    –Golf courses are only so big, and so there’s a limited value to being able to hit the ball further still. Also, the pros are very traditional–the elites like hand-ground, forged steel irons. Most amateurs, on the other hand, are cost-conscious. And this stuff will not come cheap.
    –Far more often than not, people get tired of their e-devices before they break. They put them in drawers and go buy the next generation machine. Or something in one of the tiny surface-mount circuit boards goes awry and the thing is a goner, and you never know why. Of what value, then, is a stronger case?
    It has been said that “the first thing you hear about a new material is the best thing you’ll ever hear about it…”
    I don’t wish them any bad luck, but I doubt that it’s going to revolutionize anything.

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