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Tuesday, Jul 16, 2013 11:45pm
Apple-awarded patent may be Liquidmetal breakthrough
Apple's exclusive licensing agreement of the Liquidmetal fabrication process and engineering staff in 2010 briefly sent ripples through the tech industry, until a lead executive revealed that it would take years and hundreds of millions of dollars before the material was ready for large-scale production. A patent awarded to Crucible Intellectual Property -- seemingly a joint venture between the two companies -- appears to be at least a portion of the method to generate large quantities of Liquidmetal, expected to be used in future iOS and other devices. Apple holds the exclusive license for the development and sale of the material in the consumer market.

Dr. Ataka Peker, while not named in the patent, is one of the original inventors of the alloy. Peker explained in May of 2012 that the material is a group of alloys that have an atomic structure more similar to glass, with an amorphous quality. The characteristics of the alloy can give it strength, corrosion resistance, and be able to be molded into very complex shapes similar to plastic, depending on the particular elements and temperature combination used in the generation of the raw alloy.

Patent number 8,485,245 B1 for a "Bulk amorphous alloy sheet forming process" was awarded on July 16. From the patent filing, Liquidmetal "can be valuable in the fabrication of electronic devices." Specifically, the patent names iPhones, "portable web-browser (e.g. iPad)," computer monitors, and portable music players as likely targets for the material. The filing also mentions that it could be used in a "watch or a clock," suggesting that Apple may be thinking of using the material in a future "smartwatch" device it has been rumored to be working on.

The difficulty in fabricating the material was cited as an issue with widespread adoption. The patent claims that a plant utilizing the new method which operates non-stop for up to 15 years can make about 6,000 kilometers of Liquidmetal a year in thicknesses of between 0.1mm and 25mm in widths of up to three meters. The technique described is broadly similar to the "float glass" process used for making window panes.

At present, the material has been used in only limited fashion. For instance, the SIM eject tool included with iPhones is made of the alloy. Some other companies use it for hinge materials. It is unknown when the material will be used on a larger scale, but a mass production method for generation of the material is the first step in the process.