Apple could finally use Liquidmetal for new iPhone and iPad casings, a new patent describing a fresh way of processing the high-tech "metallic glass" implies, both scratch-free and allowing for more intricate molding and designs. The company, which invested in Liquidmetal back in 2010, and renewed its exclusive rights in mid-2012, has so far only used the material for its SIM-ejector tool, because of issues in successfully producing larger sheets. However, according to the new patent, that problem could have been addressed.
The problem currently encountered with making larger panels of Liquidmetal - also known as amorphous alloy - is that the sheets are prone to shearing across when worked in the same way as metals might be. Instead, the patent describes a "float glass process" more akin to sheet glass manufacturing.
Filed by Crucible Intellectual Property, LLC - a subsidiary set up by Liquidmetal as part of its exclusivity agreement with Apple, this 2012 10-K SEC filing confirms - the patent suggests that molten Liquidmetal could be extruded onto another molten metal, floating and eventually settling until it cooled into a smooth, solid sheet. Alternatively, it could be poured onto a moving conveyor for cooling, and then passed onto a float chamber for giving the final sheet "en excellent surface finish."
Overall, the new approach could produce hitherto-impossible 3m wide sheets of Liquidmetal, with thicknesses ranging from as little as 0.1mm to as much as 35mm.
If the large-pane production issues can be overcome, Liquidmetal has huge potential advantages over Apple's current casing preference, aluminum. For a start, it's tougher than the metal, and more resistant to scratches; however, it's also more readily molded to unusual shapes, which could give Apple greater flexibility in shell design.
The patent itself even namechecks the potential applications to Apple's range, suggesting that Liquidmetal formed using the process could find its way to an iPad or iPhone, or indeed to an Apple TV as part of a casing component or remote control. In could "also be applied to a device such as a watch" the filing reads, which is likely to spark more Apple iWatch speculation.
Of course, it's not the first time we've heard whispers of the material being used more extensively in Apple's range, and indeed there was talk of the iPhone 5 using it for its back-panel, which obviously failed to happen. Apple is used to playing the long game when it comes to materials, though, and with this apparent breakthrough in production methodology, the tipping point for Liquidmetal could well be close at hand.