At this point, we've got some really amazing technology in our smartphones, and not just on the inside. Corning's continued work on their Gorilla Glass has made phone screens amazingly resistant to scratches, and as soon as someone manages to figure out how to make synthetic sapphire faster and cheaper, they'll be even better. But no matter how tough your screen is, it's still glass, and dropping it on the pavement is an almost inevitable recipe for a broken screen. (Just ask David Ruddock.)
Indium tin oxide (ITO) layers in current touchscreens. Source: Digi-Key
Dr. Yu Zhu of the University of Akron thinks that he and his team have a solution. Current screens are coated in indium tin oxide, a completely transparent substance that's also electrically conductive. Unfortunately indium tin oxide is relatively brittle and prone to shattering, not to mention expensive. Dr. Zhu's team created an alternative that retains the same conductive properties while being more flexible, resisting the impact forces that can shatter conventional screens.
Zhu, along with professor Darrell Reneker and graduate students Tianda He and Aozhen Xia, published a basic explanation of the new material in the ACS Nano journal. It uses an electrode mesh in between layers of polymer to retain conductivity without the brittle properties of ITO. According to Dr. Zhu, the material will eventually become a competitor to the current manufacturing process, solving the problem of cracked screens "once and for all." We'll see.