For many, being without a smartphone is a disconcerting and often frustrating experience, such is our reliance on them. It means manufacturers increasingly look to improve reliability and rugability, and protect devices against common causes of damage.
The second most reported cause of damage in mobile phones, after shattered screens, is liquid damage. A recent study suggests nearly a million smartphones a day are damaged by liquids, at a cost of almost $100 billion per year.
The big players, Apple and Samsung, employ mechanical solutions like gaskets and O-rings to protect their premium phones from water-damage. This kind of protection, however, is expensive, forcing many other manufactures to look at the rapidly progressing capabilities of polymer coatings, to do the job at a fraction of the price. In step P2i, a company spun-out from the Ministry of Defence that has commercialised a nano-coating initially developed to protect soldiers from chemical attack.
“Our coating technology is about protecting against splashes and spills,” says Dr Stephen Coulson, CTO of P2i. “But, we want to take it to the next step by protecting against accidental dunks and submergence.
“There are numerous drawbacks with mechanical protection: the cost; the time frame to do it; the ability not to be able to roll it out across all products; increased weight; increased size; the potential for thermal runaway… We see the nano-coatings as a much more elegant solution.”
The coating is certified as IPx2, which means it protects from inclined drops of water 15° from vertical and from humidity in environments such as kitchens, bathrooms and gyms or when liquids are accidentally splashed or spilled on it. However, it won’t protect it from rain or being immersed.
“P2i isn’t about preventing water ingress, it’s about preventing water damage once water gets inside,” says Coulson.
However, there are plans to produce a coating that meets IPx7 – protection against immersion for up to 30 minutes. He adds: “If we can get deep-immersion, we can address 94% of all damages today. With the other 6% being from loss, it feels like the goal to aim for.”
Once water gets inside an electronic device it erodes circuit board components. This causes the device to weaken and the damage is irreversible.
Garth Lautenbach, senior scientist at P2i explains: “Even if the phone still works afterwards, the corrosion will always be around. The moment another water droplet hits, it will start corroding again very quickly, which is why some devices might work for a short time after putting it in water, but it will eventually die.”
P2i has a healthy stake in the mid- to high-end phone market but is looking to diversify, both in the smartphone market and other areas. In addition, its IPx7 coating – earmarked for release in 2018 – will enable the replacement of mechanical seals currently used on some high-end phones. This will naturally coincide with the smartphone industry, generally, which is looking to move away from gaskets and seals as new screen technologies become available.
“Flexible screens and electronics are a good opportunity for us,” says Coulson. “We can coat any solid object and if the trend is going towards flexibility and miniaturisation, then using gasket O-rings might not even be possible.”
P2i is also looking to move into the automotive sector. Vehicles today have between 30 and 40 PCBs, which the splash-proof coating could protect, as well as filters where the coating can act as a barrier, much in the same way as the original military application: resisting oil ingress while letting through other liquids or gasses. The potential size of this market makes the mobile phone market look small.
Coulson concludes by saying: “The Internet of Things is predicted to explode with up to 50 billion connected devices in use by 2020. Imagine if the quality and reliability isn’t there and you have to send engineers out to replace them. It’s just not going to work, so we see nano-coating technology as a must-have moving forward.”
The P2i nano polymer coating first applied to military air-permeable clothing, allowing heat and moisture to escape – so that soldiers wouldn’t overheat – while preventing ingress of dangerous chemicals.
In 2004 the company started making in-roads into the electronics market and by 2010 its coatings protected 60% of the world’s hearing aids. A year later P2i signed
a deal with Motorola to protect its entire range of phones.
Dr Stephen Coulson, chief technical officer of P2i, says: “To date, we’ve protected over 175 million electronic devices, 10 million in December alone.”
P2i provides manufacturers with the machines needed to apply the coating to protect precious electronics from water damage. Generally, these are standalone, and easily implemented at the end of a manufacturing line.
With a capacity of 400 litres, and enough space to fit 700 smartphones. Pressure inside a vessel is reduced to help provide a uniform coating and a fine mist of P2i’s patented nano-coating is then sprayed in. Due to the fact that the particles are 20 to 40nm thick they can enter through gaps in the phones’ casing and ports, such as the headphone jack socket, to coat and protect the circuit boards. The process takes around an hour and the phones can then be packaged up and shipped straight from the chamber.