Consumer electronics and the miracle of materials

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Who, three decades ago, would have imagined that the materials that would change consumer electronics would be glass, ABS plastic, sapphire, graphite and aluminum?

Back then folks might have said silicon, tin and polypropylene, since that's what made up the majority of cheap computers, cassette decks and mobile phones. Back then, most consumer electronics weren't cheap, they just looked it. High-end materials and elegant industrial design went into luxury cars and watches, not video consoles and desktop computers. 

Sapphire? That was for the faces of Swiss timepieces. Toughened glass, the forerunner of today's Gorilla Glass, was installed in jet aircraft. So was milled and carefully welded aluminum, which also formed the frames of Canondale's top-of-line mountain bikes. 

Now artificial sapphire is poised to become the tough, thin protective layer over the screens of our mobile devices. Beneath it, another form of toughened glass, Willow, will have displays embedded into its thin flexible surface. And, thanks to Apple's industrial milling capacity, aluminum is forming the unibody casing on the most popular laptop on the planet. 

Thirty years ago, graphite was in pencils and dry cells. Nanoscale changes that yielded materials like Buckminster fullerene (Buckyballs) and graphene hadn't been developed yet. Graphene, a two-dimensional array of carbon atoms, holds promise as the substrate for a new generation of transparent electronic circuits. 

ABS plastic was used in Lego bricks, car trim and as a colourant in tattoo ink. Now it's the go-to material for 3D printers. 

It could well be that in 10 years many of our most coveted devices will be translucent, laminated sapphire wafers with nearly invisible graphene-based circuitry. And the cases, if we need them, will be 3D-printed at home. 

The point of this is simple. The technology of the future is never just an extension of the past or present. Revolution sometimes comes in leaps, not baby steps. Yesterday's pencil lead can become tomorrow's circuit board. The gemstone of the past is the screen of today. And the Lego brick of 30 years ago the building block of an industrial revolution. 

Sometimes all it takes is an economy to scale, a breakthrough to cascade, or a single device to set the world on its ear. Sometimes it's just a solitary "what if?" that becomes the Bolivian butterfly wing that sparks the tornado in Kansas that sends us all to the Land of Oz. 

On occasion we know it when it happens. The iPhone changed interface design and it was obvious on first sight. WiFi was a clear win. Netflix reconfigured our relationship to television and you knew it the first time you saw it. 

Sometimes the leaps are more stealthy. That's especially true with materials. With chemistry it takes a critical mass to spark a chain reaction.

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author, here.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.

Photo: Kenny Louie/flickr

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