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It is a sickening moment when your smartphone drops from your hand and lands with that distinct glass cracking thud. But British scientists have invented a cheap and flexible touchscreen that could mean a much tougher smartphone is coming.
The new material is created from a combination of silver nanowires and graphene, it works just as well as a regular touchscreen but can be made at a much lower price. Best of all, the new material is super flexible so that it won’t need a protective layer of glass over the top.
Traditional smartphone screens are made from indium tin oxide and covered with glass. This makes them both expensive - indium tin oxide is difficult to extract -but also brittle. Any small impact to a smartphone can cause the screen to crack or splinter. Graphene is a form of carbon made from a single layer of atoms. Since its invention in 2004, it has been used in a range of groundbreaking new materials and applications.
The lead researcher on the project at the School of Maths and Physical Science at the University of Sussex, Dr. Matthew Large explains the new material further: “The reason that the screen on your phone is so easy to break is that the touch sensor is based on indium tin oxide (ITO). This material is very brittle, so needs to be deposited on a strong, hard surface like glass. It’s the glass layer that cracks if you drop your phone on a hard surface, or sit down on it by accident. Our latest development does away with the need for the hard glass surface because the silver nanowire-graphene hybrid films we produce are very flexible. We would still need a protective surface but it could be something far more flexible than glass. As a result your smart phone screen would be far, far less likely to crack when you drop it accidentally.”
While silver is a precious and expensive metal, the amount needed to create the new material is very low. Graphene is a low cost and abundant material so the overall cost is much lower than the traditional indium tin oxide and glass screens. The scientists are confident their experiments are able to be replicated on a large production scale. “It would be relatively simple to combine silver nanowires and graphene in this way on a large scale using spraying machines and patterned rollers. This means that brittle mobile phone screens might soon be a thing of the past," said Professor Alan Dalton from the school of Maths and Physical Science at Sussex.
The research has been published in American Chemical Society journal Langmuir. The development of the flexible touch screens could have a wide application in wearable devices as well as be an integral part of new robotics and emergency response equipment. This material joins the ranks of other new hyper flexible touchscreen related materials that are being developed in Canada.