Apple patents advanced Liquidmetal processing techniques as new gadgets loom

iPhone 5 Liquidmetal concept (image 004)

We’ve been waiting and waiting (and waiting) for a Liquidmetal Apple gadget ever since that 2010 deal saw Apple acquire worldwide exclusive rights to use the amorphous alloy (also known as metallic glass) in consumer electronics applications. 2012 went and gone without a Liquidmetal iPhone, or iPad or MacBook for that matter.

At the end of 2012 Apple extended the deal with Liquidmetal Technologies (a Caltech spinoff) or another two years, through 2014. Still, the iPhone maker has yet to use the alloy in gadgets, even though it’s owned the rights to it since 2010. This could change soon, if a new patent gain unearthed Wednesday is an indication.

That the United States Patent & Trademark Office awarded Apple’s patent on a process for mass production of amorphous metals is a sign of Apple potentially moving to commercialize Terminator-like alloy. Liquidmetal iWatch, anyone?

Liquidmetal is twice as strong as Titanium and three times tougher than stainless steel.

The zirconium-based alloy possesses the processability of plastics while fusing at a temperature half that of conventional titanium alloys, which makes it an excellent material for all sorts of gadgets. That it looks stunning and is sexier than aluminum doesn’t hurt either.

USPTO yesterday granted a patent titled ‘Bulk amorphous alloy sheet forming processes’ which describes methods for forming a bulk solidifying amorphous alloy sheets that have different surface finish, including a “fire polish surface like that of a float glass”.

The conventional method for making a bulk metallic glass sheet requires casting an amorphous metal alloy at or above the melting temperature, then freezing it in a mold to form a sheet, and then using a cutting tool to remove unwanted portions and shape the sheet into the desired final geometry.

Apple patent (Liquidmetal processing, drawing 001)

This can all be too expensive, unreliable and problematic, so Apple is proposing a solution for the manufacture of bulk-solidifying amorphous sheets that uses a float glass process and/or a conveyor belt-type process.

In one embodiment, a first molten metal alloy is poured on a second molten metal of higher density in a float chamber to form a sheet of the first molten that floats on the second molten metal and cooled to form a bulk solidifying amorphous alloy sheet.

Continuously pouring the molten alloy onto a shallow bath of molten tin and varying the cooling time would allow the company to easily the thickness of the sheets in mass-production.

Apple patent (Liquidmetal processing, drawing 002)

These sheets would be presumably layered atop each other and extruded to form metallic glass blocks that could be CNC-machined for any desired shape.

This part is also pretty telling:

A float plant, which operates non-stop for between 10-15 years, could make around 6000 kilometers of BMG glass a year in thicknesses of 0.1 mm to 25 mm, more preferably 0.4 mm to 15 mm and in widths up to 3 meters, for example.

The filing specifically states that the patented processing technology could be used in mass-manufacture of such devices as iPhones, iPads, watches and even be part of a casing component or remote control for the Apple TV.

The patent has been awarded to Crucible Intellectual Property, which is the shell company representing the exclusive licensing tie-up between Apple and Liquidmetal Technologies.

apple tv

For what it’s worth, Liquidmetal Technologies CEO Tom Steipp a year ago confirmed that “Apple along with us are commercializing Liquidmetal in the consumer electronic space”.

Watch maker Omega tested the alloy, combining Liquidmetal with ceramics for a durable and stunning watch bezel.

Of course, Apple had tested the alloy in years past. For example, the SIM ejector tools for the iPhone 3G were Liquidmetal-made. With that in mind, envisioning a Liquidmetal iWatch wouldn’t be that much of a stretch.

iWatch packaging concept

On the other hand, Atakan Peker, one of Liquidmetal inventors, cautioned back in May 2012 that a  Liquidmetal Apple gadget could be five years away because it apparently takes at least two to four years to achieve reliable mass production.

Although the alloy can be 3D printed, given the size and scale of MacBooks, it’s unlikely that Liquidmetal casing will be used in MacBooks in the near term, but a tiny smartwatch could be a different story.

Atakan expects Apple to use the alloy in “a breakthrough product” that won’t be easy to copy.

“Such product will likely bring an innovative user interface and industrial design together, and will also be very difficult to copy or duplicate with other material technologies,” he said.

Liquidmetal iPhone concept top of post by French designer Antoine Brieux.