A mockup of what the iPhone 5 could look like. Image: MacRumors
After releasing two generations of iPhones with exactly the same form factor, Apple is expected to show off a new chassis design — and possibly new materials — in its sixth-generation smartphone. And a little-known alloy that Apple has quietly been using for the past two years could be just the ticket to make consumers swoon.
Korea IT News reported Wednesday that the iPhone 5 is likely to be housed in Liquidmetal, the commercial name for an alloy of titanium, zirconium, nickel, copper and other metals. It would make the outer surface of the phone “smooth like liquid,” according to the report.
“The next iPhone needs to truly stand out from the crowd,” Canalys analyst Chris Jones told Wired via email. “A change in materials is a likely way to differentiate its form factor.”
Liquidmetal was discovered at the California Institute of Technology in 1992. It’s a class of patented amorphous metal alloys (basically metallic glass) with unique properties including high strength, high wear resistance against scratching and denting, and a good strength-to-weight ratio. Apple was granted rights to use it in August of 2010.
“Liquidmetal allows precision parts to be fabricated similar to plastic injection molding, but with similar properties to metal,” IHS senior principal analyst Kevin Keller said.
In today’s metal-based gadgets, you either need to bend a piece of sheet metal, or die-cast with an inferior alloy like aluminum or magnesium. In die-casting, the alloys tend to be brittle and have poor wear resistance. Liquidmetal’s injection molding process is still a relatively new technology, and it’s fairly expensive — but that’s not necessarily anything that Apple would shy away from.
Liquidmetal has been used in Apple products (as well as those of other manufacturers) for several years. The SIM card ejector tool in some North American first-generation iPads was made of Liquidmetal, and since then, Keller said, it’s been used in a number of other internal parts and small mechanical components.
“We expect Apple and other manufacturers to start using this not only for larger and more visible portions of devices, but also entire enclosures,” Keller said. Thus, a Liquidmetal iPhone chassis seems entirely reasonable to expect in the not-too-distant future.
Jones also noted that the discovery and use of new materials was one of Steve Jobs’ obsessions. “But Apple will need to ensure a change in material does not compromise the performance of the device,” he added, noting the infamous “antenna-gate” issue with the iPhone 4.
Reports that an upcoming iPhone could have a metal back and a unibody case have been circling since well before the iPhone 4S was announced.