Phones have come a long way since Alexander Graham Bell’s original 1876 patent—so much so that, at this point, the word “phone” is a bit of a misnomer. Sure, these devices can be used to contact just about anyone else with a phone, but today’s mobile phones would more accurately be described as pocket computers. What’s more is that, 150 years since its invention, the phone is such a supremely ubiquitous piece of technology that Bell himself likely couldn’t have fathomed how widely-used his apparatus would become.
While undoubtedly useful, as phones have transitioned from the home to the pocket, they have also become much more fragile. Fifty years ago, breaking a phone took a bit of effort, and was rarely an accidental incident. Today, however, an inattentive or careless user could easily destroy his or her device with something as simple as a loose grip, and most smartphone owners are probably sympathetic to the plight of dropping a phone only to recover it and find the screen totally shattered. In most cases, the device still powers on and operates as intended, but a garish, crooked crack now blemishes the once-uniform face of the phone.
Of course, it is possible, in most cases, to have the phone repaired. However, this is usually a very expensive process. Perhaps akin to totaling a car, a smartphone can sometimes be so damaged that simply replacing it would be a less expensive option. In worst case scenarios, a ruined phone may cause personal data like pictures, videos, or other vital information to become inaccessible, which is a major fear for those toting important files around with them.
The end of the cracked screen may be near, though, as researchers at the University of Tokyo have recently uncovered a method which allows for glass to repair itself when pressure is applied to it in a room-temperature environment. According to an article hosted by Science Alert, Yu Yanagisawa, a graduate student at the university, initially made the discovery on accident. While conducting a study involving new forms of adhesive agents, Yanagisawa discovered that the polymer he was testing had the ability to rebind to itself when light pressure was applied to it. After multiple rounds of testing, the student confirmed that these results could be replicated, which indicated that his initial discovery wasn’t some kind of freak accident.
This isn’t the first time the concept of self-healing glass has been discussed, however. Though Yanagisawa’s discovery may prove to be revolutionary, chemists at the University of California unveiled earlier this year that they have managed to develop a material with the ability to repair itself. It may come off as something out of a science fiction novel, but Chao Wang, the project’s lead chemist, believes that materials of this nature will have made their way into nearly all smartphones by 2020.
Self-healing materials may seem far away for real application, but I believe they will come out very soon with cell phones. Within three years, more self-healing products will go to market and change our everyday life.
As 2017 draws to a close, it is nice to imagine that, in a few short years, consumers will no longer have to worry about potentially destroying their phone’s screen or spending hundreds of dollars on costly repairs. The clumsy and accident-prone need only endure until the new decade.