How nanotechnology is urine-proofing your smartphone

Mobile & tablets

by Ben Sullivan| 30 January 2014

Nanotech firm says that all mobile devices can be 100% waterproof in 5 years. CBR finds out how P2i is testing its 'invisible barrier' against all liquids.

Revolving shower machines, a giant salt bath, and a metre-deep tube that's going to need to hold many bladders' worth of urine. These are just some of the ways Didcot-based tech company P2i is showing how its nano-coating technology is providing absolute safety for electrical devices from the dangers of liquid.

Water damage is one of the main causes for smartphone dysfunctionality, and in turn causes headaches for network operators worldwide as damaged phones increase the risk of customers leaving the lengthy contracts they are now increasingly locked in to.

P2i says it has the answer, and yesterday I was given the opportunity to tour its UK base to talk, and see first hand, the exciting future of nano-coating.

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Dr Stephen Coulson started off by submerging his own phone in water, and then setting the timer. The pack of tissues in the photo has also been treated with nano-coating. Not very useful for blowing your nose...


 

P2i, this week celebrating its 10th birthday, was originally manifested within the Ministry of Defence, which was looking for clothing protection from nerve gases. Since then, under the helm of founder Dr Stephen Coulson, P2i has been developing a process called nano-coating which effectively makes a tiny, ultra-thin shield between a surface and liquid - making the surface hydrophobic.

As you can imagine, network operators are very interested in working alongside phone manufacturers with this technology. A phone that is, to use P2i's trademark phrase 'Dunkable', will not suffer any returns or warranty payouts for water damage, ultimately increasing revenue for operators.

The first 'Dunkable' devices will launch later this year, and the technology differs itself from regular splash-proof coatings. The barrier, which is 1000 times thinner than a human hair, enables manufacturers to reach an IPX7 water protection rating, which is classed as 'submerged for 30 minutes at 1 metre deep'. It was also noted that one customer has asked P2i to test the IPX7 standard with urine, as dropping your phone down the toilet is apparently a lot more common than you first think. CEO Carl Francis admitted: "We're not exactly sure where we're going to get that much urine."

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A sample of nano-coated tissue. Whilst not particularly useful, it shows how the surface of the tissue is 'hydraphobic, meaning it repels water.


 

Large, oven-like machines are used to coat the smartphones in the nano-technology. Devices are loaded in onto racks, and the machine then creates a vacuum which causes the nano-coating in a vapour released to stick to the phone.

“A liquid repellent nano-coating differs from a waterproof solution in that it is not a physical barrier, meaning that liquid can still penetrate inside the device. This, however, is not the end of the device's life. The nano-coating, which is applied in vapour form, molecularly bonds to both the inside and outside of the entire device, ensuring that each and every exposed surface is treated.

“What this means is that, although water can get inside the device, any liquid that does come into contact with components will simply move away from the surface, rather than sticking to it, resulting in reduced corrosion, electrochemical migration and failure."

The whole process only takes a few minutes, and P2i hopes to see these machines within homes in the next 5 years.

“We don't see any reason why there shouldn't be a P2i machine in every home by 2018," said Dr Coulson.

"The need to provide this extra level of protection is needed all around us. Whether that be for electronic devices, hats, or gloves. We can see this technology becoming as ubiquitous as a washing machine or a coffee maker like you have at home."

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Slam dunk: A test smartphone is about to be submerged into a metre of water. This shows it can pass IPX7.


 

CEO Carl Francis explains his excitement with P2i nano coating: "Functional nano-coatings. No one really thinks about these as market space these days. But we're convinced that functional nano-coatings are where e-tailers were in 1990, or search engines were in 1995, no one really thought of it as a market segment.

"There are companies out there that can do something to a phone for a few hours to make a great Youtube video. But try doing that 100,000 times a day. That's what increasingly starting to set us apart from everyone else. That's better than a Youtube video."

P2i is currently working with a large number of the world's leading smartphone manufacturers, trying to get around the problem of water-damaged devices in contracts.

"It's always nice when your customers start to really validate what you do. Some of our customers [manufacturers and network operators] are a little bit touchy about us declaring who they are, and others really want to shout about it, but they all enjoy just sitting back and realising the benefits of reduced warranty costs and increasing reliability with their customers."

Dr Coulson says: "The technology allows us to gain access to the networks. The networks are there trying to lock the customer into ever longer contracts.

"If that device fails, it gives the customer a good reason to move to another network. Customer churn through failed devices is the biggest reason for customers to walk away, and if that networks want them to stay, sometimes they have to give a new handset free of charge straight out of their bottom line. More reliable devices are better for the networks."

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A Samsung handset sleeping with the fishes...


 

When asked how many years until we see all new smartphones with waterproofing capabilities, Coulson replied with his estimate - 5 years.

“We're working with top ten phone manufacturers at the moment. What happen is that they'll try the nano-coating on a flagship product, and once the confidence is there and they see that the benefit is there, they'll start to put it on more and more devices."

Francis finished by reiterating that P2i is increasingly focusing its market on the network because "if you drop your untreated iPhone into water and take it back to Apple they'll just say get a new one, and the real loser is the network."

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