Yale engineer creates smartphone case that's 3 times tougher than steel

Researcher develops way to create strong, yet flexible, material to protect devices

Go ahead and drop that phone.

OK, maybe not yet.

An engineer and researcher at Yale University has developed technology to enable manufacturers to easily build smartphone cases that are lightweight, thin and tougher than steel.

Jan Schroers, who teaches mechanical engineering and materials science at Yale, spent most of the past 10 years working to find a different approach to precisely shaping bulk metallic glass, which is a new generation of strong, pliable material that could be used for such products as protective device cases.

"This material is 50 times harder than plastic, nearly 10 times harder than aluminum, and almost three times the hardness of steel," Schroers said in a statement. "It's awesome."

It could also be an important advance for the tech industry, according to Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research.

"Protecting your smartphone without adding much weight or thickness is a good thing," he said. "If it protects the screen when the device falls, that's important. The vulnerability of these expensive gadgets is a drawback. I think the potential of this kind of material is in making the phone itself, instead of being an aftermarket accessory."

Companies that build smartphones, tablets and other electronic devices have been looking for such a material for device cases. The tougher the case, the safer people's devices will be if they are accidentally dropped on the floor or bounced off a table.

However, the stronger, tougher materials were extremely difficult to mold into the necessary shapes. They were strong but not flexible enough to be used.

Schroers and his team may have conquered that problem by changing the state of the material, itself.

Instead of melting the material and trying to force it, at high temperatures, into a mold, the researchers put the material into a supercooled liquid state, softening it enough so it could be shaped, as if the material were a soft plastic. The technique is called thermoplastic forming.

Schroers is looking for a manufacturing partner and noted that he could scale up production by late 2015 if he finds the right one soon. According to Yale, he's also hopes to have the manufacturing done close to the university, which is in New Haven.

Scientists have been able to build metal buttons into the sides of the case, which offers a significant advance in making smartphones more waterproof, according to Yale.

"If this makes it somewhat water-resistant, there's real potential here," said Gottheil. "Protecting your phone becomes more important as the innovation rate inevitably slows and people plan to keep their phones longer."

Though the technology is owned by Yale, where it was developed, Schroers has launched his own company, Supercool Metals, and has exclusive licensing rights to it.

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