January 2007 iPhone introduction (Steve Jobs, multitouch patented slide)

Bad news for smartphone and tablet makers. It seems that the coating used to make devices like the iPhone touch sensitive is beginning to run scarce, and could completely disappear from the planet within the next decade or so.

The transparent material is called indium tin oxide, and it’s used to sense when a finger makes contact with a smartphone’s display. And apparently the situation is so bad that industry experts are rushing to find an alternative…

GigaOM reports:

“To keep costs down, electronics manufacturers will need to look to alternative materials. At the Semicon West conference Wednesday in San Francisco, industry experts reported on potential alternatives such as carbon nanotubes and silver nanowires that could someday become the dominant touchscreen coating.

During his presentation, Nanotech Biomachines CEO and CTO Will Martinez presented the audience with a transparent sheet covered in graphene — an emerging material made of a one-atom-thick layer of carbon atoms. He bent it back and forth to demonstrate its flexibility.

“Try this with ITO and ITO would be filled with cracks,” he said.”

Admittedly, nanowires are very impressive—they’re 10,000 times skinnier than a human hair—but they’re also very expensive to process. The tech is already being used in laptops and e-readers though, so mass manufacturing is possible.

The good news about the ITO shortage is that it’s fostering innovation like these nanowires. And because of these advancements, manufacturers will be able to produce devices with curved and bendable displays sooner than they expected.

In fact, some are already planning to incorporate ITO alternatives into their devices. Foxconn is said to be considering using carbon nanotubes in non-Apple devices as early as this year, and Samsung is reportedly working on its own prototypes.