How is nanotechnology waterproofing smartphones?

Designers of smartphones continually look for ways to make them as appealing as possible to the target audience. That means exploring new technologies, including the use of nanotechnology to waterproof smartphones.

How is nanotechnology waterproofing smartphones?

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People get caught in sudden rainstorms and they accidentally drop their phones into toilets or get them wet in other ways. This opens up new opportunities to smartphone OEMs to use waterproofing nanotechnology as a major selling point for upcoming devices.

Here’s an overview of some existing options and new research underway for waterproofing smartphones.

Coatings applied ON a walk-in basis

Consumers can waterproof their smartphones with nanotechnology on a walk-in basis. However, the practice of walk-in nanocoating is only popular in Asian countries and not yet widespread. It was reported as a trend in Hubballi, India, in 2020. Customers can go into shops outfitted with special machines that put their phones through a 20-minute process of cleaning and applying the nanocoating. Besides making the devices waterproof, the protective layer offered by at least one shop also stops bacteria and dust buildup.

Considering how it is common to see phone-repair kiosks and retailers at shopping centers and town centers around the world, it is not a stretch to think these mobile coating units could become more popular. If that happens, consumers could become more proactive about protecting their phones, similar to how most buy Screen protectors and install the accessories at home.

Coatings applied during the manufacturing process

One approach to applying coatings involves using a thin layer of microscopic particles to fill in all the porous parts of a surface. These treatments typically happen before a smartphone reaches the end consumer.

Statistics suggest this method could help electronics brands reduce repair costs when people submit repair tickets or warranty claims for phones damaged by water. Research from International Data Corp. (IDC) showed that harm caused by liquid was the second most common reason people had their phones repaired. Integrating a nanotech coating process into production could be a practical way to protect revenue while differentiating the products from offerings on the market that aren’t so water-tolerant.

Another surprising finding is that liquids damage nearly 900,000 smartphones each day. Those incidents don’t always happen due to carelessness. For example, a person’s gadget could slip out of their pocket and fall into a puddle as they run to catch the bus.

Samsung, Apple, and Sony are a few of the major brands that offer waterproofing on smartphones. Other companies provide water-resistant models, which provide a lesser degree of protection. Manufacturers also make other phones where there is nearly an expectation that people will eventually drop them into water.

For example, the Doogee S96Pro Chinese phone is waterproof and dustproof, plus manufactured to meet some military specifications, including blast resistance. An outdoor gear reviewer mentioned dropping the phone into a puddle and a bowl of water during use and taking it to the beach with no problems. However, they did not elaborate on the specific nanotechnology used, nor did product descriptions of the phone.

Market leaders

There is ongoing research and interest spurring developments in waterproofing with nanotechnology. However, some manufacturers are already well established in the space.

A company called HZO, Inc. is one of the market leaders in this type of waterproofing. It created specialty coating booths, catering to companies that want to efficiently apply the protection to massive quantities of devices. HZO relies on chemical vapor deposition to distribute the coating across a device. Manufacturers can also opt for masking so specific components remain uncovered.

P2i Ltd. is another brand specializing in nanocoatings for water protection. The company struck a deal with Samsung to provide advanced waterproofing of internal smartphone components, including the printed circuit board (PCB). The company’s Barrier nano-coating process involves adding a nanoscale electrically-insulating plasma coating  on the PCBA using a plasma-enhanced chemical vapor deposition process. The outcome is a non-degrading layer that lasts for the device’s lifetime. Manufacturers can also specify the coating thickness.

Startup company actnano takes the same approach of applying a coating directly to the PCB assemblies. The company indicates full protection from its Advanced nanoGUARD solution makes phones tolerate submersion at depths greater than 1 meter for 30 minutes. The company raised $12 million during a Series A funding round in 2020. Although representatives did not detail their approach, they did mention that it results in an electrically-insulating coating that is both nontoxic and environmentally sustainable.

Ongoing research

Research is underway to make surfaces more resistant to many substances people encounter in everyday life, including liquid. Some of the work could eventually bring further progress in nanotech for smartphone waterproofing.

A team at the University of Michigan developed a so-called omniphobic coating that reportedly repels water, alcohols, oils, and even peanut butter. By taking a systematic approach, which entailed mapping the fundamental properties of a variety of substances, the team chose a mix of fluorinated polyurethane and a specialized fluid-repellent molecule called F-POSS.

Tests showed how the coating could be applied to a surface in various ways, including brushing, spraying, and dipping. The team plans additional research to check that the coating is nontoxic. If it is, the innovation could protect products like phones, plus become a lifesaver in day cares or homes with toddlers.

In another more recent example, researchers at the Okanagan Polymer Engineering Research and Applications (OPERA) Lab set their sights on protecting face shields used in health care rather than phones. They created another omniphobic solution that works against a range of liquids. The hope is that using it to coat face shields could become a feasible alternative to the current processes of disinfecting medical gear. If it works as intended, the coating might repel droplets, making it possible to rinse them after use to keep them disinfected.

Elsewhere, a Simon Fraser University team discovered a combination of chemicals – organosilane, water, and an industrial solvent – could waterproof any surface. Tests showed the effectiveness remains for at least 18 months, but the researchers want to see if it differs in harsh environments. They also estimate this waterproofing solution could be up to 90% less expensive to produce than options currently on the market.

Smartphones are not yet at the point where most of them include the kind of advanced waterproofing technologies covered here. However, given the research happening and the numerous companies already offering the feature, it may not be long until that happens. After all, many consumers would undoubtedly appreciate the peace of mind that comes from knowing their phones would survive sudden accidental drops in water.

About the author

Emily Newton is a technical writer and the editor-in-chief of Revolutionized. She enjoys researching and writing about how technology is changing the industrial sector.