Apple patent reveals carbon nanotubes could give iPhones the bends

Apple has been awarded a patent for carbon nanotube circuits, which would allow for flexible electronic devices(Credit: US Patent Office)

Flip phones may have died out with MySpace, but if technology in a patent awarded to Apple this week eventuates into a commercial product, a future version of the iPhone may just bring them back. The document describes a system that uses carbon nanotubes for signal paths in a flexible printed circuit, which could form the basis of devices that can bend along a seam, even through the display itself, without damaging the circuits.

Flexible electronics, like the ReFlex, are beginning to show up in patents and prototypes in different forms. LG has been showing off its rollable OLED screens for a few years, and flexible circuitry could be made of "liquid metal" or everyone's favorite wonder material, graphene.

Apple's patent, which was filed in August 2014 and awarded just this week, is for a very specific part of a potential flexible electronic device. The document focuses on the circuits themselves, proposing that carbon nanotubes could be patterned in a way that forms flexible signal paths. These carbon nanotube circuits would then be embedded onto equally bendable substrates (essentially, the base layer that holds circuitry), such as layers of polymer or Eurakite's "flexiramics" concept.

In diagrams, Apple envisages a device that bends along a single seam like a laptop, but also points out that multiple seams could allow a device to fold up in different ways. However, the technology has wider implications than electronics designed to be repeatedly bent by the user: the company suggests that the technique could allow circuits that are made with a permanent bend, allowing components to be crammed into unusually-shaped devices.

That would open the doors for all kinds of applications, with Apple rattling off a meaty list including smartphones, tablets, laptops, wearables, gaming devices, monitors with or without embedded computers, TVs, navigation devices, vehicle dashboard displays, and kiosk equipment.

Of course, as with any patent, there's no guarantee that any of this will ever make it into a commercial product, and only time will tell.

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