Research on bendable glass could lead to flexible mobile phones

Los Alamos scientists are working on a 'metallic' glass that could be used in tablets, spacecraft and golf clubs

What if one day you accidentally step on your smartphone and instead of it shattering, it simply bends?

That day may be on the way, according to Seth Imhoff, a materials scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Imhoff told Computerworld the lab is working to develop stronger and more elastic types of glass that would bend instead of shatter under duress.

The research under way at Los Alamos, a national lab in New Mexico known for classified work on nuclear weapons, could give consumers more durable smartphones, tablets and laptops.

"In an ideal world, we'd have materials that are very, very strong -- that can withstand a lot of stress and have a very large elastic region," Imhoff said. "And ideally when they finally do undergo this change, they'd bend instead of shatter. We're looking, in this particular work, at what are the features that will enable that."

Imhoff said Los Alamos scientists are focusing their research on metallic glass, which is made up of metallic atoms and has most of the properties of metals, except that it has the irregular atomic arrangement of glass. The researchers are trying to adjust how the atomic arrangements react under stress.

A bendable, metallic glass could have a wide range of uses, such as in space science, electrical transformers, cell-phone cases and even golf clubs.

Imhoff said not to expect to buy a smartphone with bendable glass anytime soon. "A whole lot of people are working on this but it tends to be slow moving."

Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, said non-shattering glass could be a big win for devices.

"These expensive toys are very vulnerable," Gottheil said. "Users would be happier if their phones and tablets were more durable. It would increase their lifespan. Vendors would have fewer sales, but more satisfied customers."

Gottheil added that if bendable glass can be developed and it's relatively inexpensive, it could be useful in lots of applications, like automobile windshields and even home windows.

Scientists working on the bendable glass project at Los Alamos are teaming up with researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Universitat Autnoma de Barcelona in Spain, and Tohoku University in Japan.

Other scientists are also working on technology that could lead to flexible gadgets.

In September, scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, said they had created a light-emitting electronic display that can be stretched, folded and twisted, while remaining lit and snapping back into its original shape.

The new stretchable material could change the form of smartphones and could lead to wallpaper-like lighting, minimally invasive medical tools and clothing with electronics integrated into them.

This article, Research on bendable glass could lead to flexible mobile phones, was originally published at

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is

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