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While it is easy to get excited about the market possibilities for self-healing materials, (n-tech has estimated sales of all self-healing materials at $2.7 billion in 2020) they should be viewed as an early-stage technology.
Much work needs to be done on the size and materials for the embedded healing capsules that used in many self-healing materials systems. And the reversible polymers that are at the forefront of self-healing materials today are not even truly autonomic, because they require external stimuli – thermal, light or mechanical – to initiate the healing process.
Seeking a Forgiving Market
We think that there are some actual and potential markets where self-healing materials can make genuinely disruptive changes – self-healing concrete and steam turbines could be cited in this regard. But for now it will be easier to generate revenues for self-healing materials in more forgiving markets, where – if the self-healing material in question fails to perform – lives and huge investments are not at stake. n-tech thinks the consumer products sector is prime example where self-healing materials can build on the established markets for anti-scratch materials and non-scratch surfaces.
Consumer products markets are typically more forgiving of failure than say medical, military or heavy industry. Fair to say that performance requirements for consumer items can differ significantly than self-healing concrete used in a bridge! The flip side though is that consumer products utilizing self-healing materials may find limited opportunities. High-income consumers will spend on premium products but how far down market will self-healing materials be able to move?
Mobile Electronics: Beyond Scratches
We think that the mobile electronics space is where we will see a real impact being made by self-healing materials in the next few years, smartphones and tablet computers for the most part. By 2020, n-tech estimates have just over $390 million in self-healing materials being used for mobile electronics devices.
Mobile electronics devices – especially smartphones – are both fashion accessories and communications tools. Scratching must be limited to maintain functionality and enable the product to meet the consumer’s lifecycle targets. The premiums paid for screen films and anti-scratch coatings on screens reflect this notion.
Self-healing coatings have something to offer the market. Screen films can reduce image quality and often become crinkled on application. And while introducing new materials into the display industry is never a cakewalk, it is hard to imagine that self-healing coatings would produce more difficulties than Apple had with its sapphire based “dumb” coatings a little while back.
And another reason why we think that makers of self-healing coatings should take a close look at the mobile electronics sector can be found in the timeframes associated with this sector; generally smartphones and tablet lasts no more than two years. Indeed, the dynamics of the entire mobile electronics sector is built around this timing.
This has some profound implications from the perspective of the self-healing materials suppliers. For one thing, phone and tablet makers are always looking for something new to keep their products distinct in the market and self-healing could work well in this regard. Secondly, with smartphones having lives of just a couple of years, there is a limited lifetime for materials makers to consider.
LG’s G Flex 2 Shows the Way
n-tech sees the LG G Flex 2 smartphone as a harbinger of where self-healing in the mobile communications sector is headed. This phone uniquely brings together a self-healing case, coupled with flexibility designed to provide a new level of resiliency for mobile devices.
According to press reports, the material that forms the case of this phone can patch up minor scratches in around 10 seconds, while healing deep scratches – such as those from a wire brush or a knife – in a few minutes. The warmer the room is the faster the scratch is healed. So far, however, LG has not said how the phone can achieve this kind of performance. It seems most likely to us that the company is using some kind of capsule approach to self-healing, although we can’t be sure. One trade blog we have seen suggests that the LG self-healing material system is utilizes hydrogen atoms.
Hydrogen has a natural tendency to arrange its atoms equidistant to each other. When small scratches are made on the back cover, it is claimed, these atoms are pushed towards each other. Once the cause of the scratch is removed, due to its natural "equi-distancing" property, these atoms align themselves back into their original place and heal the scratch.
In addition to the self-healing case, the G Flex 2 is also semi-flexible. Flexible displays have begun to appear on the market in the past few years, but their goal has often been aesthetics (e.g. curved TVs) or to facilitate manufacturing (R2R manufacturing), not self-repair.
By contrast, the G Flex 2’s flexibility is about self-healing. Reportedly, it can be placed with its screen face down and pushed until completely flat without causing any structural damage. LG says it tested this capability up to 100 times with as much as 88 pounds of pressure and the phone has never cracked.
This is not just a matter of novelty; the iPhone 6 and 6s, which are larger than previous generations of iPhones, have had problems with damage from users putting the phone in their back pocket and then sitting down. An intrinsically flexible phone is also less likely to be permanently damaged when dropped.
Putting it all Together: The Ultimate Self-Healing Phone
This flexible capability as it is currently conceived has little to do with self-healing materials per se. However, it is easy to imagine a role for a shape memory material over time. Indeed, it will be a few more years before we think the self-healing phone becomes a recognizable segment of the mobile phone sector.
What we envision is a phone with self-healing coatings on displays to eliminate scratches and cracks that will replace the anti-scratch coatings/films used today. Building from there will be the self-repairing of damage to the exterior unit and support for flexibility.
With the smart phone market so highly competitive the manufacturer who can offer these extra benefits will do well.