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Looking for a new iPhone case? Your next one may be made out of a ‘super cool’ metal alloy that is not only incredibly strong, but is also impervious to scratches and can stretch and bend like a rubber band. They’re called ‘Bulk Metallic Glasses’ (BMG), and they’re awesome.
BMGs aren’t one specific material. The term is used to describe an alloy which contains a number of attributes. They were initially developed at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in the early 00s, and have since undergone a number of refinements at Yale University under the guidance of Professor Jan Scroers.
The promise of Bulk Metallic Glasses lies in their immensely strong composition, making them appropriate for use in protective casings, such as the one that is likely found on your smartphone. However, turning these materials into a useful product isn’t easy. Past attempts to find an effective shaping process failed miserably, ensuring that this miracle material did not make its way to the consumer, and when they did, only for a handful of incredibly niche applications.
That was, until recently. Scroers – a professor of mechanical engineering and materials science – managed to produce commercial-quality, incredibly precise molds using these materials. Products made with them will eventually be released and marketed through his new startup, Supercool Metals.
But are you curious about how ‘Bulk Metallic Glasses’ work, and how they’ll impact your life?
What Are Bulk Metallic Glasses?
To understand Bulk Metallic Glasses, we’re first going to have to talk about amorphous metals. These are solid metal alloys, but posses an atomic structure that is highly ordered, and closely resembles that of glass. That in itself is interesting, but that’s not all. They’re also incredible conductors, and once magnetized, remain so for a while, making them useful in the electronic clothes tags used to prevent theft.
Arranging amorphous glasses in thick layers (over 1 millimeter) has always been a challenge, thus presenting an interesting challenge for the commercialization and marketing of these materials in consumer and industrial spheres. However, a number of alloys have been found which can form in thick layers, and it is these that are called ‘Bulk Metallic Glasses’.
Bulk metal glasses are incredibly resistant to surface damage, such as scratches, dents and cracks. They also contain ‘elastic’ properties, making them pliable, much like traditional plastics are. This makes it possible for devices to have buttons that are tightly integrated with the chassis, making it physically impossible for liquids to seep through to the delicate innards of the device.
This is a phenomenal leap for waterproofing in consumer technologies.
BMG’s are a technology still very much in its infancy. Despite that, there have been a number of moves towards commercialization. The most notable examples are those that have been released and marketed by Liquidmetal Technologies.
These alloys – which mainly consist of a melange of zirconium, berrylium, titanium, copper and nickel – can be found in a wide range of consumer products, ranging from USB drives and MP3 players manufactured by Sandisk, to the exorbitantly-priced luxury cell phones that are produced by British manufacturer Vertu. They’re even found in high-end golf clubs, where they’re prized for their scratch and dent resistance.
But what’s different about the ones produced by Prof Jan Scroers, and his startup?
A Changed Manufacturing Process
Bulk Metallic Glasses are hard to manufacture. They’re expensive to produce. They’re incredibly hard to use in consumer applications. It is for these very reasons that they’ve only really been used in high-end products, where punters are happy to pay a premium for a stronger build quality.
The BMGs produced by Supercool metals are just as strong as those produced by other manufacturers. Unlike other BMGs however, they’re cheaper to produce, and require less energy to be expended during the fabrication process.
Schroeder first creates sheets of BMGs, which is a form that is “most conducive to practical, manufacturing applications”. From here, they’re created with a process that takes advantage of blow-molding technology. This has the advantage of being relatively green – reducing waste and energy consumption – while simultaneously being scalable, to the point where production can easily be increased to industrial proportions.
So far, Supercool Metals have used their manufacturing process to create components for wrist watches, and – more excitingly – intend to launch a line of smartphone cases. These will be even stronger than the cases offered by the likes of Otterbox. In short, BMG-level protection will no longer be constrained exclusively to high-end devices, like those offered by Vertu.
The Future Is Here. And Hard. And Bouncy.
Bulk Metal Glasses are strong. They’re incredibly scratch resistant. They bounce. They stretch. They’re a wonder-material. And with SuperCool Metals, they’re about to become even more commonplace. Will your next iPhone case be a BMG one, or are you sticking with something else? Let me know in the comments box below.