Phone Screen, Heal Thyself

Self-Mending Glass Could End Smashed Display Troubles

Over the years, smartphone manufacturers have introduced more and more durable glass elements, but CCS Insight’s research reveals that between 10 percent and 15 percent of smartphone owners still suffer a cracked or smashed display every year. It’s a hassle for owners but it’s provided an opportunity for others, including network operators and device manufacturers which offer mobile protection insurance plans, usually with an insurance partner. The potential disruptive nature of a new material that makes screen less susceptible to damage could be significant.

Researchers at the University of Tokyo have discovered a new polymer that can actually heal itself, pointing the way to a future of self-healing phone screens.

There’s been ongoing efforts to improve the strength of displays on smartphones and tablets, and there’s no denying that they’ve become tougher. Nonetheless, round-the-clock smartphone use has increased the potential for drops and smashes. Screens are getting damaged all the time.

The polymer was discovered by accident by a Japanese graduate student, Yu Yanagisawa, who thought the material would become a type of glue. He found that cut edges of the polymer would stick to each other, and formed a strong sheet after being compressed by hand at 21 degrees Celsius.

The findings of a team of researchers led by Professor Takuzo Aida have been published in Science magazine. Titled Mechanically robust, readily repairable polymers via tailored noncovalent cross-linking, the research promises a hard glass-like polymer called polyether-thioureas that can heal itself with only hand pressure. This makes it different from other materials that need high heat to recover from a break.

Displays are the most vulnerable part of smartphones and tablets and it’s enticing to think that this groundbreaking material could lead to devices with healing powers. Cracked screens have sparked several adjacent service industries worth billions. Device protection insurance plans for phones and cracked screens are offered by most major wireless operators around the world. They don’t just create additional revenue but, perhaps more importantly, build a stronger relationship between service provider and subscriber.

To be clear, the new material is still at the research stage and commercialization could be several years away. Nonetheless, the implications for smartphone and tablet makers and distributors could be significant. In aggregate, devices would be more robust and last longer. This isn’t a promise of immorality, but at least one of possible increased longevity.