New ‘miracle material’ could spell the end of cracked smartphone screens

2 Jun 2017

Cracked smartphone screen. Image: Martchan/Shutterstock

An international team of researchers, including Queen’s University in Belfast, believes it has forged a new ‘miracle material’ that could prevent smartphone screens from smashing.

If you happen to spend time looking at people’s smartphone screens on a daily basis, you might notice that quite a few are cracked.

While phone manufacturers either build or source their screens with the intentions of making them sturdy enough, previous studies have shown that in the US alone, half of people have experienced a screen break.

Future Human

However, recent developments over at Queen’s University in Belfast (QUB) could see the dawn of a new era of screen, thanks to the forging of a novel material.

Working in collaboration with Stanford University and the National Institute for Materials Science in Japan, Dr Elton Santos from QUB’s School of Mathematics and Physics wanted to create hybrid screens that can conduct electricity at unprecedented speeds and are light, durable and easy to manufacture in large-scale semiconductor plants.

Publishing its findings in the journal ACS Nano, the team combined semiconducting molecules (known as C60) with graphene and another material called hBN.

What makes this combination work so well is that the hBN provides stability, electronic compatibility and isolation charge to graphene, while C60 can transform sunlight into electricity.

If this combination were to be put into a smartphone, it would be able to benefit from a number of special features such as using less energy, meaning your device can go a lot longer without a charge.

“Our findings show that this new ‘miracle material’ has similar physical properties to silicon but it has improved chemical stability, lightness and flexibility, which could potentially be used in smart devices and would be much less likely to break,” Santos explained.

A ‘dream project’

Prior to this breakthrough, Santos had predicted that the combination of hBN, graphene and C60 would result in a solid with remarkable new physical and chemical properties.

“It is a sort of a ‘dream project’ for a theoretician, since the accuracy achieved in the experiments remarkably matched what I predicted, and this is not normally easy to find,” he said.

“The model made several assumptions that have proven to be completely right.”

There still remains one issue to overcome, however, as the graphene element of the material is lacking a ‘band gap’, which enables an electronic device to perform on-off switching operations.

It is hoped that a solution in the form of transition metal dichalcogenides (TMDs) could help crack the problem as it is very chemically stable.

“By using these findings, we have now produced a template, but in future we hope to add an additional feature with TMDs,” Santos said.

“These are semiconductors, which bypass the problem of the band gap, so we now have a real transistor on the horizon.”

Cracked smartphone screen. Image: Martchan/Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic