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.

  • Cameron Nelms

    How does it just “disappear”? Is it a chemical reaction that can’t be reversed? Does it go into outer space via evaporation?

    • iHamzaDev

      The limiting reactant in the ITO reaction is the Indium. It’s limited supply and it’s very costly. I assume that the Indium supply with in the reaction is what’s causing the ITO process to come to a halt. Carbon nanotubes are a good alternative and the use of graphene with silver nanotubes can be a good alternative as well.

      • Cameron Nelms

        Thank you, this makes much more sense

      • cr0w_69

        Where do they get this material (Indium or whatever) from is it like in the earth or what?

      • Sean Clark

        Zinc refining process. Indium winds up in the slag.

        Isn’t indium also used in lcd screens? If so, I feel like the blame may be pinned on the wrong product. I can’t imagine a 60 inch screen not using more of the substance than a 4 inch phone.

      • Not an expert on the matter, but the article specifically and explicitly states what they are talking about is the “the coating used to make devices sensitive”. That “is used to sense when a finger makes contact with a smartphone’s display.”

      • Guest

        It’s found in the Earth’s crust.

      • iHamzaDev

        No problem. 🙂 I do research in a lab at my college, so I know a lot about this stuff. Lol.

  • I think I may keep my current iPhone for a long time even after replacing it. Perhaps it may become a valuable collectable someday 🙂

    • Liam Mulcahy

      maybe

    • Falk M.

      Every iteration will be a collectible.
      All price dives are temporary, once the old models get scarce and people like me who are collectors (well, I keep my Apple stuff I buy to use at least)…

  • Malan Raja

    Meh.. im sure they’ll find a way out 😀

  • n0ahcruz3

    Can we just recycle these indium oxide on some old smartphones/tablets that are not being used?