1. Protecting your phone from you: How science is helping your smartphone survive its worst enemies
particles - where science matters
  • Protecting your phone from you: How science is helping your smartphone survive its worst enemies

    By Kelly Hall, 3M Storyteller

    Image of a shattered smartphone screen

    • Dropped your smartphone again? We can all relate.

      Most of us aren’t strangers to damaging our smartphones in some unusual ways – sinking them down the toilet, losing them while taking a risky selfie, sending them through the washing machine or even stepping on them.

    • Gloved hands work on repairing a broken smartphone

      The most common ways to break your smartphone include dropping it on a hard surface and getting it wet. So, it’s no wonder that quality and durability are top features we consider when deciding which phone to buy.

      That’s why smartphone designers are using science to help your smartphone survive one of its worst enemies: you.

      Cracked screen? Not this time

      Before you purchased your trusty device, it already lived a life of its own. Scientists at 3M test technologies that you can’t see deep within your smartphone. These tests help scientists predict how phones may respond when subjected to sources of damage.

      The scientists partnered with leading smartphone manufacturers to create some surprising solutions to keep smartphones intact. Evelyn Baldwin, an expert working with 3M’s Electronics Materials Solutions, explains how technologies, like adhesives, step in.

      “The adhesive provides vibration damping where the shock of the drop is dissipated across the surface of the smartphone,” she says. “In addition, it has high strength. Together, these properties absorb shock better and improve drop resistance in your phone.”

    • Image of a smartphone in a pool with a hand reaching in to grab it

      Water dismissed

      And although you may think dropping your smartphone in a pool of water is rare, it turns out that H2O and our smartphones actually meet far too often. In fact, according to the International Data Corporation, liquid damage is the second most common cause of smartphone failure, with nearly 900,000 smartphones damaged by liquids every day. It doesn’t come without a cost – more than $96.7 billion to be exact. A lot of that cost is absorbed by manufacturers and smartphone insurers, but most of the cost goes to you and me.

      Yes, you can always stick your phone in a bag of rice and follow other common tips on what to do when you drop your phone in water. 3M scientists are taking it a step further to help protect your phone from you. That’s why new tech is on the rise in smartphones, with features like water resistance.

    • Gloved hands show the circuit board within a smartphone

      Science unveiled

      How can science save smartphones from water damage? It’s the way your smartphone is bonded and glued together that makes all the difference.

      The science of gluing electronics is called e-bonding. Olivier Delesalle – an e-bonding expert at 3M – explains that when you drop your phone in water, the tape inside the phone may delaminate or separate.

      “This can damage the seal between the two parts of the housing, making the phone vulnerable to moisture and water,” he says.

      Further damage happens once the smartphone is removed from the water and turned on or connected to your charger. That's because short circuits can occur when current is pushed through the smartphones while they’re still wet.

      “Water damage in the form of current leakage and corrosion starts to happen on uncoated circuits immediately when powered,” explains 3M chemist Greg Marszalek. “If unpowered, the electrochemical damage is limited, since there is no current flow, and it is typically isolated to the battery terminals where water can bridge the connection, causing a short.”

      The same adhesive helping to protect your phone when it drops can also help create a permanent seal against water. 3M scientists and engineers designed tapes with an acrylic foam adhesive and a flexible elasticity, allowing the tape to flex and stretch to keep a strong bond. This helps the tape maintain a seal when joined parts of the phone expand and contract at different rates after impact.

      The result? Smartphones can absorb the shock they experience when soaked in water, helping to stop water from making its way into your smartphone and prevent any corrosion or electrical contact issues from taking place.

      Bonding isn’t the only thing that saves your smartphone from all things aquatic. Another line of defense against water is applied to a key component deep inside your smartphone: the circuit board. The circuit board is responsible for converting your smartphone’s audio signals, storing the operating system, helping to recharge your battery and even interconnecting the main functions of your keyboard. It is one of the most important parts of your smartphone and needs to be protected from water at all costs.

      If water comes in contact with the components on the circuit board, it will provide a conductive path between components, causing them to short. “It doesn’t take too long if you were to drop your electronic device into water for corrosion to take place,” says Greg. If you’re swimming in the ocean or a salt-water swimming pool, your situation will be even worse. That’s because the corrosion will take place much faster when salt is involved.

      Leading smartphone makers are utilizing 3M solutions to coat circuit boards with a line of defense: electronic grade coatings – which repel water by creating a coating that allows the circuit board to stay safe.

      In an experiment, we coated part of a circuit board. The other part was left uncoated. You can see how an uncoated circuit board compares to a coated circuit board when submerged in water in the video below.

    Video demonstrating how an uncoated circuit board compares to a coated circuit board when submerged in water
    View Video

    • “On the uncoated side, you’ll see bubbles, and that’s the electrolysis occurring. Over a short period of time, you’ll see the copper start to corrode on the uncoated part,” says Greg. Meanwhile, the coated side stays intact.

      The electronic grade coating acts as a barrier that helps protect against moisture, liquids and other environmental hazards that could shorten your device’s life – a life of pictures, data and our most precious memories that we all want to protect.