Physicists Crack The Problem Of Smashable Phone Screens

Everyone has that one friend whose phone always looks like this. Thankfully, physicists have come to the rescue. Rokas Tenys/Shutterstock

Smashed screens are the frustrating fate of many smartphones. Thankfully, a team of physicists in the UK have been on the case to fix this ultimate first-world problem.

Researchers at the University of Sussex have helped developed a technique that could make smartphone touchscreens cheaper to produce, more environmentally friendly, and less brittle. Their study was recently published in the American Chemical Society journal Langmuir.

One of the main components used in phone touchscreens is indium tin oxide, a rare metal used as part of the transparent and electrically conductive film on top of the screen. However, it’s got some major downfalls. First of all, it’s very brittle. Secondly, it causes a lot of environmental damage. It’s mining and production also potentially puts workers at risk of developing numerous nasty health complications. Other materials that serve the purpose, such as silver, are expensive.

To overcome this, these physicists have turned to a hybrid material composed of silver nanowires and graphene.

Dr Matthew Large, University of Sussex, flexes a screen made from acrylic plastic coated in silver nanowires and grapheme to illustrate the kind of touch screens that can potentially be produced using the new approach. Dr Matthew Large/University of Sussex

Graphene is a two-dimensional carbon material just one atom thick. Through developing a new “potato stamp” technique of applying graphene onto the silver nanowire films, the researchers say they might have cracked the problem of brittle screens, as these super-fine materials mean the screen is flexible and less likely to shatter after an impact.

"While silver nanowires have been used in touch screens before, no one has tried to combine them with graphene. What's exciting about what we're doing is the way we put the graphene layer down,” Professor Alan Dalton, from the school of Maths and Physical Science at the University of Sussex, said in a statement“We float the graphene particles on the surface of water, then pick them up with a rubber stamp, a bit like a potato stamp, and lay it on top of the silver nanowire film in whatever pattern we like.”

“And this breakthrough technique is inherently scalable. 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.”

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