Shell Phones: Nature Inspiring Innovation

Smartphones are now a huge part of modern life, but with the screens currently made from glass, these are easily broken. When this happens, you are often faced with the dilemma: do you pay a fortune to replace it or make do with peering through the broken glass? A team of Bioengineers at McGill University in Canada may have found a potential solution, looking to nature and the humble mollusc shell.

Image credit: George Chernilevsky

In a journal recently published in Science and reported in The Economist, the team have developed a new type of so-called unbreakable glass that mimics the material found inside mollusc shells. According to the scientists, the material is as clear as glass, but as durable as plastic and has the potential to work for smartphones. It is inspired by the inner shell linings of the mollusc, known as mother-of-pearl or nacre, which is 3,000 times tougher than the other components. Nacre has the rigidity of a stiff material but the durability of a soft one, making it unique.

To build the nacre-like glass, the researchers used the natural structure of nacre reproducing it with layers of glass flakes and acrylic, making it 3 times stronger and 5 times more fracture resistant than ordinary glass. However, the material produced was still too opaque for smartphone glass. In order to make it visually transparent, they altered the refractive index of the acrylic to an amount similar to glass. By applying this tweak, they have essentially invented stronger, tougher, and clearer glass that can be compatible for smartphone screens.

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(A) Glass composite (without index-matching strategy on left and with index-matching on right), (B) Glass composite’s microstructure, (C) View of the nacreous layer in red abalone shell, and (D) Nacre’s microstructure – Source: McGill University

There are still some issues that need ironing out, such as improving its conductivity essential for touch screens, but once solved this new material inspired by nature could open the door for tech giants to build smartphones with virtually unbreakable displays. Having access to a patent database, like Minesoft’s PatBase is crucial for tech giants to identify and track new technologies, such as this and spot potential licensing opportunities.