Mobile phone giant Nokia and Cambridge University have been working for a number of years on nanotechnology applications for cell phones. In 2008, they announced the much-ballyhooed Morph phone that featured plastic electronics; the flexible circuits allowed the handset, which I like to call it the Dick Tracy phone, to wrap around your wrist like a watch.
I guess it’s impressive to duplicate a tech gadget used by a comic book character developed in the 1930s, but I never could see the point. Adding to the head scratching on that one was their admission that they didn’t expect to commercialize that phone for another 20 years.
As a marketing tool—as I’ve heard the Morph phone described—it was effective in that it got a lot of press coverage. But it left me thinking: Does Nokia really have a handle on what nanotechnology can do for mobile phones?
It seems the researchers there did. In fact, Nokia published an entire book on the subject back in 2010 called “Nanotechnologies for Future Mobile Devices.” So there remained considerable hope that Nokia would focus its attention on the technologies that would really make a difference in cell phones, namely longer lasting batteries.
So, when news came out this week that the big breakthrough it had made in pairing cellular telephony with nanotechnology was to make handsets waterproof, I couldn’t help but be disappointed.
Okay, I'll admit that waterproofing is a good feature—and sure is a step up from a Dick Tracy phone. But really, Nokia? Five years of collaboration with Cambridge University and this is the result? I have ‘water-resistant’ nanotechnology on my cycling apparel. At this point, water resistance is just not one of those added features made available by nanotechnology that I can get too excited about anymore, even if it is the super-hydrophobic variety.
Sure, duplicating the lotus effect and other biomimicry on the nanoscale is a worthy feature for a score of products, but some of these products have already been on the market for nearly a decade now.
While I know people who have ruined their phones by dropping it in water, when Chris Bower, the principal scientist at Nokia Research Center in Cambridge, claimed in the video that a coating of the super-hydrophobic material could manage to help a phone dropped in water survive, he seemed less than certain and I was less than impressed. Don’t get me wrong. Keeping a phone from becoming waterlogged is a big deal. I suppose I just expected an even bigger one. Worse still for Nokia, at least one news report seems to have contradicted Bower's claim, pointing out that because of all the openings on a cell phone, water would still find its way into the electronics.
I'll give the researchers their due: The graphene sensor they rigged up to help them film the water droplet falling on the coating in super slow motion is quite impressive. But it seems I’m still going to have to wait for Nokia and Cambridge to announce a mobile phone that will operate for a month without recharging .
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.