Can mobile devices really be waterproof?

Watch this video about waterproofing on HowStuffWorks. Researchers have developed a water-repellent coating to waterproof many different kinds of materials without changing the normal look or feel of them.
MIT

Remember waterproof disposable cameras? For a few bucks, you could buy a disposable camera encased in a plastic body, suited for underwater photography. Whether you were goofing around in a swimming pool or snorkeling in Hawaii, those plastic cases kept your film and camera technology safe from the water. Modern technology deals with the idea of waterproofing a bit differently. For starters, it's invisible.

One of the hottest technologies on display at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show was waterproof nanocoating. Several companies demonstrated technology that looked like magic: They dunked iPhones in water tanks, fully submerging them and then pulling them back out no worse for wear. The phones still worked!

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The secret lies in a water-repelling material that bonds with a solid object, be it a smartphone or a Kleenex -- it's thin enough to leave complex electronics perfectly functional, but thick enough to shrug off dangerous liquid. Let's take a look at how nano waterproofing works -- and see if it's really up to the task of keeping your smartphone safe during a rainstorm or snorkeling trip.

The Basics of Waterproof Nanocoating

This HZO demonstration at Showstoppers, Mobile World Congress 2012 in Barcelona features a submerged iPod Nano that timed the display, which showed electronics still functioning after more than four hours.
This HZO demonstration at Showstoppers, Mobile World Congress 2012 in Barcelona features a submerged iPod Nano that timed the display, which showed electronics still functioning after more than four hours.
© Image courtesy HZO

For $60, a company called Liquipel will take your smartphone, place it in a vacuum and pump a vapor into the chamber. The vapor deposition process spreads a thin film over and inside the device, coating the sensitive electronics with a material designed to deflect water -- what this material is made of remains a secret. Another nanocoating maker, P2i, gets a little more scientific with the explanation: "P2i's patented technology employs a special pulsed ionized gas (plasma), which is created within a vacuum chamber, to attach a nanometre-thin polymer layer over the entire surface of a product. When liquids come into contact with it, they form beads and simply run off" [source: P2i].

Before coating electronics with their material, P2i used it to waterproof outdoor equipment like gloves and hiking boots. Another company, HZO, is also protecting electronics with a waterproof nanocoating. But are these thin films really "waterproof?" Yes and no. These nanocoatings are designed to save devices from brief exposure, not minutes or hours spent underwater.

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HZO writes that "many devices we have coated have survived continuous hours under water," but all three companies make it clear you shouldn't go swimming with your phone [souce: HZO]. They can repel water, and prevent components from being damaged by water, but you should still turn your phone off if it gets wet and give it time to completely dry off before using it.

How to Waterproof Your Phone

You can send your supported existing mobile device to Liquipel to have it nanocoated, but soon, such coatings may become standard feature on all mobile devices.
You can send your supported existing mobile device to Liquipel to have it nanocoated, but soon, such coatings may become standard feature on all mobile devices.
©Liquipel

Still think this nanocoating technology sounds totally awesome? Well, it is! Sure, it's not quite as safe as a bulky plastic case, but it's invisible, and could save your phone from a dangerous drop into the sink or a rain puddle. Ready to give your phone the protective treatment? Here comes some bad news: Only a select number of phones are currently treatable.

Liquipel is the only company that actually allows you to send your phone in to be coated -- HZO and P2i are working with electronics companies to make their coating a standard component of shipped models. As of mid-2012, Liquipel supports iPhones, iPads, and the iPhone shuffle, a few phones from HTC, a few phones from Samsung, and a few phones from Motorola. Unfortunately, if you don't have one of those phones, you can't order the mail-in coating service.

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P2i has worked with Motorola to offer water protection in its Droid Razr and Xoom 2 tablet. There's nothing holding these companies back from expanding their technology to other devices, aside from the complicated business of striking up deals with the likes of Samsung and HTC, who produce millions of Android phones every year. 2012 is just the beginning.

Author's Note

I actually saw these nanocoating technologies in action at CES 2012 and was really, really impressed. It's one thing to see an iPhone submerged in water -- that's crazy! But it's even crazier to see a Kleenex completely submerged and then removed completely dry. That's how you know this is the real deal. I just hope all the major electronics companies get on board and start making this a mainstream feature for smartphones.

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Sources

  • Srivastava, Kendra. "Coming soon: waterproof phones." May 17, 2012. (June 16, 2012) http://www.mobiledia.com/news/143098.html
  • P2i.com. "Motorola XOOM 2: Splash-Guard, Powered by P2i Technologies." (June 16, 2012) http://www.p2i.com/tv/public/category/electronics-aridion/video/152
  • HZO. "Technology | Waterproof Cellphone and Gadgets." (June 17, 2012) http://www.hzo.com/liquid-protection-solutions/
  • Liquipel.com. "Liquipel." (June 17, 2012) http://www.liquipel.com/