Cell Phones of the Future Could Survive Being Dropped

Future Cell Phones Might Literally Reach Out a

Cell phones and iPods could soon be made with all-plastic chips that would allow the gadgets to survive being dropped over and over, thanks to work of a Dutch researcher.

And the added benefit of plastic—it's cheap. The cost of our beloved tiny toys would drop.

Paulette Prins of the Delft University of Technology demonstrated that specially rebuilt plastic conducts electricity as well as the silicon wafers that are commonly used to make the semiconductor chips that are the brains of cell phones, MP3 players and other portable consumer electronics.

Other applications include electronic devices with flexible screens that can be rolled up, she noted in her doctoral dissertation, defended earlier this month, and in a paper published in April issue of the journal Physical Review Letters. It will probably take several years for such products to reach the market, she said.

The limiting factor in making droppable electronics is the chips inside them, Prins said.

The reason iPods and cell phones stop working after pavement bounces is that the chips contain many nearly microscopic pathways that send operational signals throughout the device. Those pathways are disturbed by drops. Plastic chips could absorb bounces better.

Currently, the chips inside electronics conduct electricity at least 1,000 times better than plastic. Prins discovered that in plastics, the movement of charge was mainly hindered by the chain-like structure of the material.

Prins extended the work of a German group that had rebuilt the chain in plastics to form a ladder-like structure. By bombarding the specially developed plastic with electrons from a particle accelerator, she was able to study rapid electrical reactions and demonstrate the new plastic's ability to conduct electricity much better than regular plastic and as well as silicon chips.

"My research shows that the mobility of charges along isolated chains can be as high as the mobility of charges in conventional semiconductors," Prins told LiveScience. "When the organization of the polymer chains in electronic devices is optimized, all-plastic electronic devices can be developed that benefit from this high mobility."

Robin Lloyd

Robin Lloyd was a senior editor at Space.com and Live Science from 2007 to 2009. She holds a B.A. degree in sociology from Smith College and a Ph.D. and M.A. degree in sociology from the University of California at Santa Barbara. She is currently a freelance science writer based in New York City and a contributing editor at Scientific American, as well as an adjunct professor at New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program.