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An iPhone technician repairing a broken phone.

Scientists have invented a smartphone screen that can't be broken

There's nothing quite so annoying as having your phone break, and I'm not just talking about technical malfunctions here. Nope: I'm referring to the damage your phone takes when it does a belly-flop out of your back pocket, or somersaults out of your butterfingers and smashes itself instantly. We've all been there: you've just saved up for a brand-spanking-new piece of tech, only to fumble in a moment of clumsiness and watch it get wrecked before your very eyes. If smartphone screens weren't so damn fragile, this wouldn't be a problem. But it seems like it's simply our destiny to spend the rest of our lives squinting in vain at the cracked screen.

But the one thing you can always guarantee when it comes to engineers is that those eggheads can fix almost any issue, if you give them enough time to go through trial and error that is. As it turns out, smashed smartphone screens could well be a thing of the past very soon thanks to the latest technological innovation. The brainiest boffins in the land have apparently managed to invent a cheap and super strong model of a touch screen display using graphene, a so-called "miracle material." The result? A host of phones that were once more fragile than Donald Trump's ego are now twice as durable as Captain America's vibranium shield. Isn't science amazing?

An iPhone 1 with a broken screen. Credit: Getty

Physicists from the University of Sussex in England created a brand new kind of screen by combining silver nanowires with graphene. For those who have never heard about it, graphene is a carbon allotrope with several frankly astonishing qualities. The one-atom-thick material is the strongest material ever tested, registering as approximately 200 times stronger than steel according to durability testing. It is also extremely flexible and capable of conducting heat and electricity extremely efficiently. But most importantly of all for phone purposes, graphene is also almost transparent.

Alan Dalton, the professor at the University of Sussex who spearheaded the innovation, stated: "While silver nanowires have been used in touchscreens before, no one has tried to combine them with graphene. This breakthrough technique is inherently scalable. It would be relatively simple to combine silver nanowires and graphene in this way on a large scale using spraying machines and patterned rollers. This means that brittle mobile phone screens might soon be a thing of the past." Matthew Large, another researcher on the project added: "Since graphene is produced from natural graphite—which is relatively abundant—the cost for making a touch sensor drops dramatically."

A hammer which has shattered an iPhone screen. Credit: Getty

Our current smartphone screens are constructed mainly out of indium. Indium is a rare metal which is extremely soft; so soft in fact, that it can actually be cut with a knife! Its flexibility is extremely useful when overcoming certain technical situations, but it is also extremely brittle, which is what makes touchscreen displays so susceptible to being cracked. Furthermore, it is extremely environmentally unfriendly, despite its near-ubiquity in modern LCD displays. Replacing indium with graphene would mean that new smartphone screens would be even tougher and portable electronic devices would potentially be far more flexible.

Several manufacturers, including tech-giant Samsung, have sung the praises of graphene, claiming it will revolutionise screen technology, and the Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology is currently looking at ways to incorporate it into their products at an affordable price. One of their laboratory leaders stated: "This is one of the most significant breakthroughs in graphene research in history. We expect this discovery to accelerate the commercialisation of graphene, which could unlock the next era of consumer electronic technology." Other applications for graphene include indoor solar cells, reinforced silk and LED lights.

This should also come as welcome news to environmentalists concerned about e-waste, since indium is so harmful. According to a report conducted by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, 416,000 mobile devices and 142,000 computers end up in landfill or get incinerated every day, and approximately 150 million mobile phones are discarded in US every year.

A large pile of damaged iPhones. Credit: Getty

This figure is made all the more galling due to the fact that each cell phone contains a small amount of precious metal. If we were to recycle one million cell phones, we could expect to recoup more than 20,000 lbs of copper, 550 lbs of silver, and 50 lbs of gold, so it's clear that there is a financial incentive to recycle mobile phones, particularly when so few are actually re-used. The Basel Action Network, a charitable non-governmental organisation aimed at reducing toxic waste, estimates that approximately 80 per cent of the electronic waste directed to recycling in the United States do not get recycled at home, but are instead shipped off to Asian nations such as India or China.

So there you have it: in a few short years, chunky and expensive phone cases aimed at insulating phones from shatter damage could be a thing of the past, and a new age of indestructible phones will dawn around the world. Personally, I can't wait.

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