New Transparent Metal Could Make Smartphones Cheaper

By Nathaniel Scharping | December 24, 2015 9:00 am
smartphone

(Credit: Kostenko Maxim/Shutterstock)

As smartphones get smaller, cheaper and faster, one essential component remains costly: the screen.

Almost 90 percent of smartphone touchscreens utilize a rare and expensive compound called indium tin oxide, which has kept the price of such screens high. Now, researchers at Pennsylvania State University have developed a new material, called strontium vanadate, that shares the transparent and conductive properties of indium tin oxide at a fraction of the cost.

The researchers detailed their findings in an article published earlier this month in the journal Nature Materials. They crafted a transparent metal composed of strontium and vanadium with an unusual configuration of electrons that allows light to pass through while retaining the electrically conductive properties of metals.

A New Way To Look At Screens

The researchers see smartphone screens, which need to be electrically conductive and transparent, as the most immediate application of their discovery. Indium tin oxide possesses those integral properties but its cost comes in around $750 per kilogram. As a result, when you shell out several hundred dollars for a new smartphone, roughly 40 percent of the cost is tied up in the screen. Both strontium and vanadium sell for just $25 or less per kilogram, according to the researchers. In addition, researchers produced the compound in a film only 10 nanometers thick, making it perfect for touchscreens.

Typically, metals share their electrons freely, which allows them to move throughout the structure uninhibited, much like gaseous molecules. This gives metals their distinctive properties, such as malleability and conductivity. The electrons in strontium vanadate, a so-called correlated metal, behave more like a liquid than a gas, moving slower and interacting with each other in curious ways.

DSC_0006-001

Panes of transparent correlated metal. (Credit: Pennsylvania State University)

Electrons in strontium vanadate molecules exhibit stronger forms of electrostatic interaction — the forces acting between positively and negatively charged articles. These forces slow down the electrons and cause them to interact in complex ways, according to the researchers. The end result is a metal that retains its conductivity, but is less reflective when light is shined on it, making it transparent. This combination of properties makes it perfect for use in smartphone screens. The researchers also see applications for their compound in a new form of solar cells, as well as smart windows and television screens.

Transparent metal sounds like an oxymoron, but you could one day be reading this story through it.

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  • Joseph Slabaugh

    Cool. Hope it is a big success.

  • johni4595

    I’m surprised the Chinese haven’t stolen this research yet.

    • zach99zulu

      Pretty sure the Chinese are about proven technology. Low risk, high reward.

      Once the technology is applied to products in the market, the Chinese will be all over it.

    • ericlipps

      What makes you think they haven’t? Or, for that matter, duplicated it independently?

      • johni4595

        I can only gauge their activity by their commercial endeavors. So far I haven’t seen this offered by a Chinese manufacturer.

  • LuFromTX

    Inventas vitam juvat excoluisse per artes.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Transparent p-type semiconductors are not all that rare: ZrIrSb (doi:10.1038/nchem.2207), TaIrGe (doi:10.1038/ncomms8308). Their singular attribute is that they are discovered for other reasons. Productive basic research is insubordination. Minimize progress by minimizing risk (overpaying for opportunity, DCF/ROI). A future that is not born in blood is borne in blood.

    Adding a little eventual zirconia to ITO deposition ought to help conductivity.

    • Ken_g6

      So why aren’t any of those used instead of InSnO? Are they all more expensive?

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

        Any change is more expensive. Risk is avoided by doing nothing. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Entropy, re Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and kipple.

  • Me

    This is great! A ten fold savings in production cost, that manufacturers and vendors could then pass along to their………..pockets. :)

    • siempre44

      Yes, the actual inventors and manufacturers get to keep the profits. Go invent and build something and you will too.

    • okiejoe

      Just as personal computers still cost thousands of dollars.

      • Willam Hugh Murray, CISSP

        Right. The first hard drive I bought was 10 mbytes and cost me $3000 at the IBM employee price. I had to have a separate chassis to put it in. The bus to connect it was as big around as my thumb. I thought I would never use it up.

        Now I can buy a terabyte to put in my shirt pocket for $100-. This is in spite of the massive conspiracy to keep prices high.

  • Private_Eyescream

    Having two rather toxic heavy metals in a touchscreen?
    Sign me up. Who wants to live forever anyway?

    • okiejoe

      Yes, you certainly wouldn’t want to consume any thing as toxic as Sodium and Chlorine in any form. Even Salt.

  • francini

    Another case of reality catching up with science fiction!

    No mention of the ‘transparent aluminum’ mentioned in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home? This is what Mr. Scott wanted to construct an aquarium to hold the two whales that Kirk & co needed to bring forward to stop the Intergalactic Ho-Ho from ravaging 23rd century Earth. He had to settle for very thick slabs of acrylic plastic (Lexan).

    Or Larry Niven’s General Products’ spaceship hulls that were transparent yet well nigh indestructible by anything short of anti-matter?

    • ericlipps

      “Transparent aluminum” was the first thing I thought of, though I don’t know if any real-life transparent metal could match that stuff’s supposed strength.

  • http://xfoolnature.org Doug Nusbaum

    Let me see. $750 per kg, or 7.50 for 10 grams. Maybe $30.00 per oz. And of course fabrication of those screens costs nothing which explains how the screen costs $120+ My phone weighs about 5 oz and I doubt that the screen is more than 40% of that weight, so we have 2 oz, so $60.00 for materials That will now be only $2.50, so you will save all of $55.00 maybe. Probably more like $25.00 assuming that fabrication costs are not higher for this new material.

  • Ian Cordner

    I’ll bet, once introduced, the cost of cell phones will not drop one iota. They’ll say development costs keep the price high!

    • Willam Hugh Murray, CISSP

      The first cell phone I bought was analog, the size and weight of a brick, had no data, had no screen, and cost $1500.00, down from $3200, a year earlier. I paid $1/minute, plus tolls and roaming.

      Perhaps that was before you were born. In any case, the cost has been falling like a rock your whole life. You have just been too busy to notice.

      The price is so low that in Africa, more people have mobiles than indoor cooking or plumbing. Some people are hard to satisfy and see conspiracies everywhere.

      • Ian Cordner

        I was around when those first cells came out and wanted to rent one for my work but my company refused because they were too expensive, they provided pagers instead. Canada – where I am – has the highest rates on the planet because of the monopoly here. That is the reason for my comment. Why bring prices down when you can fleece the public without opposition!

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