PC housing debuts: Why Apple loves plastics

It's no wonder that Apple keeps bulking up its materials' engineering capabilities. New types of plastics and molding capabilities keep emerging, creating opportunities for high-end consumer electronics applications. Given Apple's demand for the highest-possible quality, and willingness to pay for it, high end materials' science is a perfect fit for the company.

Apple, for example, has been a leader in looking for applications for injection molded metallic glass. Apple tested the material in the SIM card eject tool for the iPhone 3G.

The U.S. Patent Office recently awarded a patent to Crucible Intellectual Property (a JV of Apple and Liquidmetal Technologies) for bulk amorphous alloy sheet forming processes. The development excited the stock penny crowd enough to boost the sagging share prices of LMT, which has also been working on a unique injection molding process developed by Engel. In fact, the stock price rose enough to allow LMT to pay off a senior debt note that was due Sept. 1.

It is not clear how Apple might use the "liquid" metal sheets. Apple is famously secretive about its materials technology and design development.

While Apple has been a leader in development of specialty metals and glass for its consumer electronics devices, plastics clearly are in its gunsights. Apple loves plastics because they are lightweight, strong, can be cost-effectively mass produced, and can be injection molded into complex shapes that combine functionality. Component integration boosts reliability and cuts costs.

Breakthrough materials of interest to Apple include thermoplastic carbon composites for housings.  That's the same material now used in the latest designs of aircraft fuselages and wings.

Possibly the most important reason Apple likes plastic is its very high technical ceiling. As an illustration of the emerging technical potential of plastic, consider research published recently in Nature Chemistry.

Duke scientists showed that an engineering plastics compound can actually be strengthened by shear mechanical forces, as in you drop a smart phone and instead of breaking, it gets tougher.  

Polybutadiene was functionalized with something called dibromocyclopropane mechanophores, whose mechanical activation creates crosslinking. The crosslinking is activated by shear forces. "The resulting covalent polymer networks possess moduli that are orders-of-magnitude greater than those of the unactivated polymers," say the researchers.

No one outside of Apple will know what materials technology is actually used in the latest phone or tablet until they are commercially released.  Nor will Apple confirm or deny that any material is under review.

But you can bet that plastics will be playing a bigger and bigger role.

Note: The iPhone 5c introduced Sept. 10 has a polycarbonate housing!


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