A new patent covering technology invented by employees of Apple Inc.
and a Rancho Santa Margarita company indicates they may be making progress
toward commercializing a futuristic material that could lighten or strengthen
future Apple gadgets.
An earlier agreement between the Orange County company, Liquidmetal Technologies, and Apple -- revealed through an SEC filing in August 2010 -- rescued Liquidmetal from considerable debt. It gave Apple exclusive rights to consumer-electronics applications for Liquidmetal's eponymous material.
The two companies agreed to share further patents developed for the technology into 2014. In the meantime, Liquidmetal can license and sell the technology to other industries, including aerospace and medical.
Omega used the technology in the bezel of a limited line of analog watches. Around 2005, Vertu used it in a phone that cost more than $5,000. (The phone survived being driven over with a Porsche Boxster during a test by the New York Times.) It was also used in a USB flash drive by SanDisk.
Liquidmetal, which emerged from research at the California Institute of Technology, involves mixing certain elements, such as zirconium and titanium, and heating and cooling them under very specific conditions. The resulting material looks like hard metal, but at the molecular level it's structured more like glass. The result is a material that's superior in strength, hardness and elasticity as well as resistance to corrosion and wear.
The Liquidmetal alloy is touted as being twice as strong as titanium, while being moldable during production, like plastics.
For Apple, Liquidmetal could mean thinner, lighter, stronger parts -- making room for more components, or enabling lighter gadgets.
So far, the material has only been used in the smallest way by Apple -- in a tiny tool that shipped with the second-generation iPhone which helped users remove the phone's cellular SIM card. Rolling out the technology more broadly would require working out how to mass manufacture it cost effectively while purchasing all new manufacturing equipment.
"Apple is going to be the right company to do that," said Atakan Peker, a former researcher from Liquidmetal Technologies who moved to the applied sciences laboratory at Washington State University in 2007. He said using the material for the "iPhone or some other (high selling) application requires mass manufacturing of sheet products."
The newly issued patent covers a process for creating a sheet of Liquidmetal by pouring molten alloy on top of a denser molten metal so that the first pools on top of the other, and then cools. Peker guessed the technology would still be a few years away from something Apple could use at the required scale.
Several patent applications filed in 2011, 2012, 2013 surrounding the production of Liquidmetal are also working their way through the patent-approval system, assigned to Crucible Intellectual Property, an entity set up to share the patents.
Shares in Liquidmetal Technologies, which trades over-the-counter as LQMT, nearly tripled Wednesday, opening at 7 cents and closing at 20 cents.
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