updated 07:25 pm EDT, Thu May 3, 2012
Technology already in use on smaller parts
Dr. Ataka Peker, one of the inventors of the new class of metallic alloys known commercially as Liquidmetal and the founder of the company, says he believes Apple would have to spend "three to five years", and "$300 million to $500 million" to develop the alloys to the point where it could be used on a large scale, such as for an entire computing casing. He believes the company will continue to use Liquidmetal on a smaller scale until a "breakthrough product" comes along.
In an interview with Business Insider, Peker explains more about the substance, which is a group of alloys that have an atomic structure more like glass, giving them an amorphous quality. This means it achieves many of the qualities of other elements in one: exceptionally strong and corrosion-resistant like stainless steel, low-cost and able to be molded into complex shapes similar to plastic, and already smooth and beautiful like glass. Peker developed the original alloys along with his professor while a doctoral student at CalTech.
He describes the raw Liquidmetal material as being like stainless steel but with a slightly different tone and hue to the metallic gray, which can vary a bit depending on the specific alloy combinations used. One of its advantages is that it can be prepared in various cosmetic finishes, and is a "bit warmer to the hand when touching" compared to other metals, Peker says.
Apple is already using the technology on a small scale for things like the SIM card ejector pin found in the iPhone 3G, but Peker says the technology is still not "perfected" and is still to be matured both from a manufacturing standpoint as well as for practical application development, as the technology is "completely new and different" from metals and alloys currently in wider use. Apple, he says will have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars and several years' worth of time to develop the technology to the point where it could be used for large-scale commercial products.
Pekar says that as the technology grows, Apple would be more likely to use it for portions of devices rather than casings -- for example a hinge on the MacBook Air rather than the entire body. He says it is "unlikely" that Apple would use the material for the full casing in something like a MacBook Pro, since that would entail another few years of further development. Peker's view doesn't disqualify the material from playing a larger role in smaller devices such as the iPod or iPhone.
Prior to Apple obtaining the exclusive license, Liquidmetal was also used in other cell phones, such as "Nokia and Samsung flip phones," Peker said, implying that the technology was used for hinges. Apple has received patents for using the material to increase the natural cooling capacity of components, having bought the company and rights to Liquidmetal in 2010. Though Apple now controls the technology, the company is still manufacturing and shipping parts to other customers.
Peker says he expects Liquidmetal to evolve in two areas under Apple's control: "evolutionary substitution of current materials," in devices such as the iPhone, along with an eventual "breakthrough" product that could only be made using Liquidmetal technology, making it exceptionally difficult to copy or duplicate with other materials. [via Business Insider]