Flexible Glass for Folding Phones Is Probably Still Years Away
There are plenty of reasons the world isn’t ready for foldable phones, but Samsung, Huawei, and others have decided that now is the time to sell you one for $2,000. The price is one of the major issues, but the materials needed for a foldable display are another. These phones are all plastic, which isn’t as durable as glass. However, it sounds like we’re years away from having a foldable glass replacement.
Ever since the original iPhone changed the way we interact with screens, Corning’s Gorilla Glass has been the standard for smartphone design. Not only does a pane of hardened glass increase the structural strength of a phone (not unlike your car windshield), it’s almost impossible to scratch unless you’re a pocket sand aficionado. The flexible plastic covers of devices like the Galaxy Fold and Mate X are destined to pick up nicks and scratches at a higher rate.
Corning has a product that could solve these problems called Willow Glass, but it’s still far from a reality. Corning manufactures Willow Glass from materials like sodium and potassium salts. This makes the glass panel thin and flexible — capable of bending thousands of times with no deformation. The molecular structure of glass, even this flexible variety, is more stable than plastic. So, you won’t get the unsightly creases that are already apparent on the Samsung and Huawei demo devices.
The company is targeting a 3-5mm bend radius, and the glass itself is a tenth of a millimeter thick. That should allow for a phone that is 6 to 10mm thick with a display folded around it. That would be thinner than either the Galaxy Fold or Mate X.
To produce this glass, engineers dip glass sheets into molten salt. That allows potassium ions to displace sodium ions. The main drawback right now is that salt molecules don’t work well with the transistors required for touchscreens. The electronics would slowly corrode until they stopped working.
So, there’s still a lot of work to do here, but bendable glass does exist. It just won’t work on foldable phones yet. Maybe in a couple of years, you’ll be able to get a more durable foldable phone. Until then, your $2,000 foldable phone is at risk.