Apple has a new toy. It's a materials company called Liquidmetal, and everybody's talking! Problem is nobody seems too sure what they're talking about. So, Liquidmetal: What is this stuff? And what does Apple want with it?
Liquidmetal. It's a subtly powerful name, invoking images ranging from self-healing Terminators to Alex Mack. It's also an oxymoron: Liquid, metal. And while Apple probably isn't getting into the T2000 business, they may have huge plans for our new mystery metal.
Liquidmetal piques our interest. Not because it's brand new - it was first brought to market in 2003, and only after years of development - but precisely because it's not. It's been used before in golf clubs and baseball bats; it's been sent to space; it's been sent to work by none other than the maligned Deepwater Horizon drilling rig; it's even been used in consumer electronics that you've probably come across yourself. (You know those SanDisk Cruzer Titanium USB drives, with the slide-out connectors? Yeah, those aren't made of titanium.)
And yet suddenly, after all these years, Apple doesn't just want to use Liquidmetal, it wants to own it and to keep it from everyone else. Why? What do they see that everyone else hasn't? And what does it mean for the future of Apple products and for everyone else in the industry?
The scientific definition of Liquidmetal goes something like this: Liquidmetal is a member of a class of metal alloys known formally as bulk metallic glasses - because the material shares some properties most closely associated with glass, like impact brittleness, and instead of a fixed melting point, a gradual loss of integrity at higher temperature. It's a mixture of stuff you've probably heard of: copper, titanium, aluminium and nickel. So yeah, fundamentally, it's just a type of stuff, like a polymer, an aluminium alloy or a glass.
The secret's in how it's made: Instead of simply mixing the alloy and letting it cool, amorphous alloys are cooled more quickly. This changes their atomic structures, in turn altering their basic properties. Ordinary metals typically have crystalline, ordered atomic structures, and therefore tend to deform when struck or flexed; amophous alloys are made of chaotic, unordered atoms, which tend to spring back into shape, more like a liquid. (Most metals have directional grains, like wood. Liquidmetal doesn't.)
What makes Liquidmetal special compared to other amorphous alloys is that it's easier to make. To brutally simplify things, it doesn't need to be cooled as quickly as other similar materials, and can be cooled - read: made - in greater quantities.
Like I said, you've probably heard something along these lines, either more precise or less, but unless you've got a degree in the physical sciences, descriptions like this don't mean much. So it's got a weird atomic structure. What does that matter?
What It Is
So you've got a piece of Liquidmetal in your hand. What does it look like? What does it feel like? "In terms of colour and look, Liquidmetal alloy looks like a normal metal, more like stainless steel than aluminium, albeit with its own distinct metallic colour." That's Dr Atakan Peker, one of the researchers behind Liquidmetal. He worked with the company for more than 10 years, and now the Director of Advanced Materials at Washington State University. "In a thin card or rod form, it feels much more flexible than stainless steel or aluminium. However, as you bend it more, it feels much stronger and will require much more force to bend... One can think of Liquidmetal alloy as a much stronger plastic."
The coolest thing about Liquidmetal is that, as circumstances get more extreme, so do its behaviours. From a NASA report on the substance:
In the experiment, three marble-sized balls made of steel were dropped from the same height into their own glass tubes. Each tube had a different type of metal plate at the bottom: steel, titanium, Liquidmetal. Once each ball was dropped they were left to bounce. The balls hitting the steel and titanium plates bounced for 20 to 25 seconds. The ball hitting the Liquidmetal plate bounced for 1 minute and 21 seconds. During the experiment, this was the only ball that bounced outside its tube
Hints of flubber here, no?
Dr Peker gave me an even more vivid image: "If one makes a paperclip from Liquidmetal alloy, it will stay quite flexible and one would likely hurt or cut a finger or two before deforming it permanently." Try to bend that Liquidmetal, kid, and you're going to hurt yourself.
But lest we get caught setting up a mythology here, we should point out that it's had a limited success in real products. There was that SanDisk key. Samsung stuck some Liquidmetal parts in a few phones - screen frames and hinge parts, to be specific. And it's telling that the specific models are pretty much indistinguishable from the ones that don't.
But the further we get away from consumer electronics, the more exciting Liquidmetal's story becomes. In earlier incarnations, it's lived both inside golf balls on on the face of $US600 clubs, where its extreme bounciness was a boon but its lack of refinement may have been a fault - some of the clubs were known to shatter spectacularly and without so much as a "FOOOORRREE". (This little fiasco pushed Liquidmetal, the company, into "substantial" debt.)
It's been used in Rawlings baseball bats and Head tennis racquets; it's been wrapped around the cores of a few skis. It was treated a lot like titanium: something that makes a product premium and that looks good on paper, but which you might not notice if you weren't told. Andre Agassi used a Liquidmetal racquet for a while, but does anyone think he wouldn't have won the 2003 Australian Open with another piece?
The military has moulded it into tips of armour-piercing Kinetic Energy Penetrator (KEP) bullets, and it's been used to make ultra-hard scalpels. It's been built into replacement joints for humans. It has fans at NASA, which has sent it to space a handful of times for experiments, and once in solar wind-collector tiles above the doomed Genesis probe. According to an old BP/Transocean drilling contract, it's almost certain that the drilling rig that devastated the Gulf of Mexico used Liquidmetal - under the name Armacor - in its drill pipe. (Armacor hasn't been implicated in the disaster.)
To sum it up: Liquidmetal is useful anywhere you could imagine an extremely hard, somewhat flexible, easily mouldable piece of stuff to be useful. Which makes it all the more strange that Apple wants to own it - not just in part, but all the way. They've purchased the exclusive rights to a substance that, on the face of it, has been less successful in gadgets than in most other industries it's been used for. Even weirder? It's conceivable that Apple will soon be licensing technology to the military-industrial complex, to the aerospace companies and to deep-sea drilling companies. The movie villains.
Why Apple Bought It
There are only two ways to know what Apple would do with Liquidmetal. The most obvious, and least likely to work, would be to ask Steve Jobs, Jonathan Ive or an Apple engineer. Ha. Alternately you could just see how they already have. Yup, it turns out that prior to their purchase, Apple presided over what could be one of the largest deployments of a Liquidmetal product in history: the iPhone.
Speaking to Leander Keany at CultOfMac, Dr Peker noticed something odd about the iPhone's SIM ejector pin: "I recognised it immediately. Take it from an expert, that's Liquidmetal." So yeah, Americans (in other parts of the world the pins seem to be steel): go find your iPhone 3G/3GS box (sorry iPhone 4 owners, your MicroSIM's ruining the fun. Again.), dig that pin out and feast your eyes: you are in possession of a tiny little piece of Liquidmetal.
This tells us... well, not much. It shows that the brass at Apple has been interested in Liquidmetal for longer than they've let on. It also tells us that they've found someone, somewhere, capable of turning out millions of small pieces of the stuff. Dr Peker notes that the reason Liquidmetal hasn't taken off in consumer electronics likely has less to do with the inherent promise of the material than a "lack of a suitable manufacturing infrastructure". Nobody's truly thrown their weight behind it, so it's simply been too expensive to make. But that's not an insurmountable problem: All it would take is a company with patience, money and leverage over hardware manufacturers. It would take a company like... Apple.
So in a material scientist's wildest imagination, what could Apple do with this stuff? Dr Peker points to the most obvious use for a hard, non-deforming, non-corroding and generally scratch resistant material: cases.
Plastics are flexible but not strong, and while metals are much stronger than plastics, they're not as flexible. Liquidmetal alloys can provide a more durable casing, which is much more resistant to dents, nicks, scratches and breakage than hard plastics.
If you drop a plastic-encased phone, it cracks or scuffs. If you drop a metal-encased phone, it dents or nicks. If you drop a Liquidmetal-encased phone, well, it should just bounce. For like, a minute and 21 seconds. Maybe. In theory.
Pekar also proposed a use that's ripped straight from the headlines, talking again to Leander Keany: It could be used for an antenna - and in fact already has been, in a Novatel wireless modem built for Verizon. That the last iPhone's fraught antenna was also part of its case may be no small coincidence - Liquidmetal is easily mouldable, and given all the shit Apple had to eat during Antennagate, it's reasonable to think that they're scrambling for an alternative. And this one wouldn't have seams.
But the most realistic outcome of this purchase is, to use the word of the day, subtle. Like any other good material, Liquidmetal will be asked to disappear into a product at the service of design. An iPhone with a Liquidmetal antenna, for example, wouldn't be marketed as a Liquidmetal iPhone - it would be marketed as a slightly better iPhone.
And let's say it finds its way into the hinges of our MacBooks, under the assumption that it will loosen or wear less quickly; or that it makes up the body of the next iPod Shuffle, as cartoonishly tiny as that's sure to be. These products will, if Liquidmetal's various boosters are to be believed, be the kind of subtle improvements on their predecessors that we usually take for granted. It may be hard to notice.
What could be easier to notice is the edge the new material could give Apple. Remember, there was nothing wildly transformative about Apple's unibody manufacturing process - it was just a bit better - it made their products feel more luxurious and structurally sound. It provided a distinctive look. Maybe it made them more durable; it's hard to really know. In any case, this collection of subtle differences came to define the company's laptop line, and shrewdly, Apple patented the hell out it. If - when - Liquidmetal oozes its way into the next generation of Apple products, you might not be able to point to it, but you'll know it's there.