Apple Interested in Liquidmetal Alloys for Home Buttons, Touch Sensors, and Tamper-Resistant Screws

Back in 2010, Apple signed an exclusive agreement with Caltech spinoff Liquidmetal Technologies, providing Apple with the rights to use Liquidmetal's advanced metal alloys for consumer electronics purposes. Liquidmetal's amorphous metal alloys or bulk metallic glasses posses a number of characteristic properties such as high strength and corrosion resistance while remaining relatively light and able to be cast into a variety of forms.

Apple quietly tested Liquidmetal's alloys in the SIM card eject tool for the iPhone 3G, but the materials have otherwise not been confirmed to have appeared in any other Apple products, as one of alloys' inventors noted in 2012 that their use as major design materials was still several years in the future.

Evidence of Apple's continued interest with Liquidmetal alloys has surfaced a number of times over the past several years, including in a granted patent from July covering a process for mass producing thin sheets of the Liquidmetal alloys and a series of technical patent applications published in November describing methods of working with the alloys to create products.

A number of patent applications addressing additional innovations with Liquidmetal alloys have been published since that time, including a batch of 17 applications published just this past Thursday. Many of these applications are not yet listed as being assigned to Apple, but the inventors listed on the patents are Apple employees who have routinely been associated with the company's work on Liquidmetal alloys in the past.

One of these patent applications proposes using Liquidmetal alloys in pressure sensors such as those found in buttons and switches on mobile devices, offering greater durability under repeated use. Figures accompanying the patent application closely resemble the iconic home button found on Apple's iOS devices.

Because switches on consumer electronic devices are operated frequently, the materials used to fabricate the switch must be capable of repeated deformation and return to their original configuration. The ability of a material to deform reversibly under stress is known as the material's elasticity. Above a certain stress, known as the elastic limit of a material or the yield strength, the metal material may deform irreversibly, becoming inelastic, exhibiting plasticity and adversely affecting the function and utility of the switch. [...]

A proposed solution according to embodiments herein for pressure sensors is to use bulk-solidifying amorphous alloys as the deformable material, and to measure the pressure based on the physical changes of the bulk-solidifying amorphous alloy as it is deformed.

liquidmetal_button

Button or switch using Liquidmetal alloy as deformable material

Another application published in mid-December describes how Liquidmetal alloys could be used as material for tamper-resistant screws to help secure devices against unauthorized access.

A proposed solution according to embodiments herein for tamper resistance is a fastener having a head portion and a tamper resistant bulk-solidifying amorphous alloy interlock portion, wherein the fastener and the substrate into which the fastener is fitted into are permanently fastened via an interlock formed from the interlock portion during the fastening process.

liquidmetal_screw

Tamper-resistant screw made of Liquidmetal alloys

A third patent application addresses the use of Liquidmetal alloys as a substrate for touch sensors found in displays such as in Apple's iOS devices. Apple describes how discrete areas of crystallinity can be created on the amorphous metal substrate, allowing for greater control and higher density of touch sensing arrays, thus giving greater positional precision for touch sensing.

liquidmetal_touch_sensor

Touch sensor grid using Liquidmetal alloy as substrate

Most of the remaining patents are more technical in nature, addressing methods for working with Liquidmetal alloys or assessing their characteristics. One such patent application does, however, address methods for applying or transforming coatings to an amorphous material, allowing for increased durability and strength by protecting the underlying metal.

All of these patent applications were filed in June or July of 2012, suggesting that Apple may have made significant progress on these disclosed inventions since that time. It is unclear, however, whether any of the techniques or proposed components have made their way into shipping products or if they remain in the research or prototyping phase.

(Thanks, David!)

Tag: patent

Top Rated Comments

(View all)
Avatar
86 months ago
I hope those tamper resistant screws don't ever appear in any Apple product.
Score: 20 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Avatar
86 months ago

Right. Thanks for clarifying.

Any idea how the heck interlock screws are supposed to be removed? How does apple service these devices?


I think the point is that with the tamper resistant screws, you DON'T service them. Neither does Apple. The device is permanently sealed and if you need to repair the device, you throw the device away and get a new one.

I think out of all of the patents in this story, the tamper resistant screw should set off the most alarm bells.
Score: 18 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Avatar
86 months ago

I remember how the SIM Card tray was liquidmetal on the 3G. For whatever reason.


Sim card tray remover was liquid metal. Pretty sure the tray was plastic.
Score: 10 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Avatar
86 months ago

I think the point is that with the tamper resistant screws, you DON'T service them. Neither does Apple. The device is permanently sealed and if you need to repair the device, you throw the device away and get a new one.

I think out of all of the patents in this story, the tamper resistant screw should set off the most alarm bells.


I'm confused by the method of tamper resistant screw outlined here too, but I don't think this means it's not serviceable as you suggest. Tamper resistant means just that... not to be tampered with, casually. If the point is for it not to be serviceable at all, why even use a fastener with a head? Why not a rivet or a weld?
Score: 8 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Avatar
86 months ago

Are you saying my wife should push my home button less to make me more responsive?

----------



To all concerned about the temper resistant screws:

If it is made by humans it can be solved by humans.

So, no matter what these screws will be defeated by us.

Worst case we re-drill and put in another kind of screw or we'll check the 526,917 possibilities on You Tube.
Not to worry. Anybody who tinkers will not be distraught by this.


You're right--the tamper resistant screws can be defeated (how I don't know, just going by precedent). But the real question is how the tamper resistant screws enable apple to make even more money, which is what they care about. This fanatical control has got to stop and the question has to be asked, why support these types of practices at all as consumers? Answer: only if apple's products are just that much better to be worth all of this control and premium pricing. The answer for me is becoming "no, it's just worth all of this" anymore. When I look back, my iphones have been no more durable, or even less durable than my android phones. The manufacturing is all pretty much even now, except that I've paid twice as much for my phones and even had them serviced. $260 to replace a power button that has been the target of class action lawsuits already? Please. I could just buy a new phone at that price. Oh wait, that's what Apple store told me I had to do in order to fix a broken power button whose cause is the very definition of a manufacturer defect.
Score: 6 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Avatar
86 months ago
Temper resistant screws = one more level of control and a way to make it impossible to repair the products.
I hope they won't start putting them into the macs.
Score: 4 Votes (Like | Disagree)

Top Stories

Apple Takes Legal Action Against Small Company With Pear Logo

Saturday August 8, 2020 11:09 am PDT by
Apple is taking legal action against the developers of the app "Prepear" due to its logo, according to iPhone in Canada. Prepear is an app that helps users discover recipes, plan meals, make lists, and arrange grocery deliveries. The app is a spinoff of "Super Healthy Kids," and the founders claim that they are facing litigation from Apple. Apple reportedly takes issue with Prepear's logo, ...

Kuo: Global iPhone Shipments Could Decline Up to 30% If Apple Forced to Remove WeChat From App Store [Updated x2]

Sunday August 9, 2020 10:17 pm PDT by
In a worst-case scenario, Apple's annual global iPhone shipments could decline by 25–30% if it is forced to remove WeChat from its App Stores around the world, according to a new research note from analyst Ming-Chi Kuo viewed by MacRumors. The removal could occur due to a recent executive order aiming to ban U.S. transactions with WeChat and its parent company Tencent. Kuo lays out...

iPhone Maker Foxconn Says China's 'Days as the World's Factory Are Done'

Wednesday August 12, 2020 7:55 am PDT by
China will no longer be the world's manufacturing epicenter going forward, according to Apple's largest supply chain partner Foxconn, which has been gradually expanding its operations in other countries amid the U.S.-China trade war. "No matter if it's India, Southeast Asia or the Americas, there will be a manufacturing ecosystem in each," said Foxconn chairman Young Liu, according to Bloombe...

Google Maps Debuts New Apple Watch App and CarPlay Features

Monday August 10, 2020 9:16 am PDT by
Google today announced the launch of several features for Google Maps on Apple products, including new CarPlay functionality and a new Google Maps app that works on Apple Watch. The new Google Maps app for Apple Watch works similarly to the iOS app, allowing Apple Watch owners to get directions for a car, bike, public transit, or on foot. The app supports estimated arrival times and...

Apple May Release 4G-Only iPhone 12 in Early 2021

Tuesday August 11, 2020 5:28 am PDT by
In a research note shared by Business Insider, Wedbush Securities analysts said that Apple may release a cheaper iPhone 12 in early 2021 with no 5G connectivity. Wedbush initially believed Apple would launch a mix of 4G and 5G iPhone 12 models this fall. Following re-examination of Asian supply chains, analysts Daniel Ives, Strecker Backe, and Ahmad Khalil revised the predictions,...

iPad Pro Keyboard Comparison: Logitech's $160 Folio Touch vs. Apple's $300 Magic Keyboard

Tuesday August 11, 2020 2:11 pm PDT by
Logitech recently debuted the Folio Touch, a keyboard and trackpad case designed for the 11-inch iPad Pro that serves as an alternative to the Magic Keyboard. In our latest YouTube video, we compare the $160 Folio Touch to Apple's $300 Magic Keyboard to see which is better. Subscribe to the MacRumors YouTube channel for more videos. Logitech is selling the Folio Touch for $160, while Apple's...

Foxconn Reportedly Begins Seasonal Hiring Spree for iPhone 12 Production

Monday August 10, 2020 7:03 am PDT by
Apple's largest manufacturing partner Foxconn has begun its seasonal hiring spree to assist with iPhone 12 production, offering employees who recruit qualified applicants up to a 9,000 yuan bonus, according to Chinese media reports. As usual, Foxconn needs as many hands on deck as possible at its factory in Zhengzhou, China to assist with mass production of the upcoming iPhones. Apple is...

Apple Seeds First Public Beta of watchOS 7 to Public Beta Testers

Monday August 10, 2020 10:33 am PDT by
Apple today seeded the first public beta of an upcoming watchOS 7 update to public beta testers, one week after seeding the fourth beta to developers and a month and a half after the Worldwide Developers Conference. The update can be downloaded after installing the proper profile from Apple's Public Beta website. watchOS 7 should not be installed on a primary device as it is still an early...

Apple Watch Likely to Adopt MicroLED Display Technology in 3-4 Years

Monday August 10, 2020 2:55 am PDT by
This year's Apple Watch Series 6 is expected to feature an OLED screen like previous models, but a future model is likely to be the first Apple product to adopt MicroLED display technology, albeit not for another three to four years. That's the main takeaway reading between the lines of comments made by the chairman of Epistar, Taiwan's top LED producer, which is reportedly working on a...

Parallels Desktop 16 Brings macOS Big Sur Support, Multi-Touch Gestures, 20% Faster DirectX, and More

Tuesday August 11, 2020 2:17 am PDT by
Parallels Desktop 16 released today, bringing some notable new features and performance enhancements to the virtualization software, including full support for macOS Big Sur. When Apple introduced macOS Big Sur, it ended support for the third-party kernel extensions that previous versions of Parallels were built on. That forced the developers to re-engineer the virtualization software from the ...