The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has issued Apple with a patent that finally suggests how the company may have planned (or be planning) to use LiquidMetal: in conjunction with display glass made from sapphire to form a single, integrated chassis for the iPhone.
The patent is actually over six years old, but has just been granted—a mere week after Apple extended its exclusive contract to use LiquidMetal in consumer electronics through to 2015. So far, the company has only used its rights to the material to make a SIM card ejector tool—but this patent suggests its uses could be rather more sophisticated.
"Methods and systems for integrally trapping a glass insert in a metal bezel"—or U.S. Patent No. 8,738,104 to its buddies that insist on snappier naming systems—describes how it could be possible to integrate glass, such as sapphire, into a metal phone bezel using LiquidMetal to bridge the gap.
While that might sound like a recipe for disaster—a world of written off phones and lack of repairability—the reasoning behind it is actually pretty sound. Currently, Apple uses a rubberized gasket between glass and metal frame of its phones to damp the system in the event of a tumble. It works well enough, and is still used in the iPhone 5S—but the beauty of using LiquidMetal is that the alloy itself has many of the positive attributes of plastic while being tougher and harder-wearing.
The patent in fact describes how LiquidMetal could be used to provide many of the same damping qualities as the current rubber gasket, while also providing an integrated metal-and-glass chassis. What's more, it also explains how the thermal properties of the alloy are well suited to the metal injection molding technique that would be required to undertake such a manufacturing feat.
Of course, it's not clear if Apple plans to roll out an iPhone that actually uses such large quantities of LiquidMetal—but the timing in relation to Apple's renewal of its LiquidMetal contract, and the fact that the patent predates the original sale of the rights, hints that the intent is certainly there.
Either way, a near-future release seems unlikely—not least because we haven't heard of any rumors of mass LiquidMetal production, which would be required for it to appear in every new iPhone. Regardless, it's interesting to see Apple thinking about how it can use new materials in consumer devices—we'll just have to wait and see if the results ever make it into our hands. [USPTO via Apple Insider]