For the countless poor souls who have suffered cracked smartphone screens, a solution is in the works: the self-healing phone screen.
From a lab in Japan comes word of technology that may be the first self-healing glass, period.
Now don’t go looking for the new phone just yet. This is still in the lab stage, but if the early results carry through – when you buy your first self-healing phone, don’t forget a tip o’ the hat to petrochemicals.
That’s because the magic ingredient is a polymer (polyether-thioureas, if you’re inclined to hit the books for a look at the molecular level) *. And this is the magic: if you crack a glass surface (like a smartphone screen) made with this polymer, you can close up those cracks by pressing them back together with your hand. Then, you let your phone rest for a few hours, and the screen returns to its original look and strength.
This isn’t the first self-healing material. It has been done in rubber and plastic before. But this would be the first time to make something hard, like glass, that can fix itself, and at room temperature.
A couple of years ago, Motorola estimated that half of all smartphone users had a broken phone screen at some point. So when we thought about a photo of a shattered screen to go with this story, we figured that’s a picture we’ve all seen. More than enough. But maybe in a few years, the only place we’ll see a picture of a cracked screen, is in a picture.
*(And the “magic” in polymers, generally speaking, starts with the chemical building blocks produced from petrochemicals. Years of hard thinking, lab work and precision manufacturing later, and – voila.)