Applications of Hydrophobic Nano Coating Technology for Electronics

Topics Covered

P2i and Electronics
Why does a wet phone die?
Wearable Electronics
About P2i


It may be well known that water and electronics don’t mix, but as technology continues to become increasingly integrated into everyday life, so increases its potential for exposure to everyday liquid hazards.

A survey commissioned by P2i, the world leader in hydrophobic nano-coating technology, in May 2013 showed that more and more people are taking their smartphones out and about into potentially water hazardous environments.

In fact, over 70 per cent of those surveyed admitted to taking their phone in the rain, while the number of people with their phones out in pubs or cafés increased 19 percentage points; from 67 per cent in 2012 to 86 per cent in 2013. Not surprisingly, 43 per cent had accidently water-damaged their phone.

P2i is already protecting tens of millions of devices with its hydrophobic nano-coating for brands including Motorola and Alcatel One Touch, and is working with pioneering partners to commercialize the Dunkable™ process.

P2i and Electronics

P2i’s patented plasma deposition technology, which was originally designed to coat military clothing, to protect against chemical warfare, is now innovatively applied to electronic devices including smartphones, tablets and hearing aids.

Initial application of the P2i hydrophobic nano-coating technology to the hearing aid industry in 2009 enabled progression into the mobile devices market. Hearing aid devices are required to function in a hostile environment and suffer from moisture and water ingress, skin-oil exposure and a build-up of cerumen which leads to battery corrosion, reduced reliability for users and increased return rates for manufacturers. In just two years P2i had revolutionized the reliability of hearing aids, to the extent that one customer reported a 50% reduction in corrosion and moisture related damages in the first six months.

Having delivered scalable, industrial solutions for the hearing aid industry, in 2010 P2i began discussions with all the major mobile handset manufacturers. P2i was able to meet the challenges of this industry, revolutionizing the performance of electronic devices by invisibly protecting them against accidental splashes and spills.

Over the past twelve months, P2i has worked to expand the technical product portfolio beyond the splash-proof treatment, focusing on increasing levels of water resistance whilst ensuring the process remains scalable and cost-effective for smartphone manufacturers. By controlling the nature and surface density of the nano-coating during the plasma enhanced deposition process, P2i is able to maintain exceedingly tight control of film thickness and composition. By forming a hydrophobic barrier this new Dunkable™ technology dramatically reduces the development of electrochemical migration and permanent water damage.

This is however, just scratching the surface of the potential for P2i in the electronics industry. The combination of proven market success with the splash-proof technology, next-generation technical effect with Dunkable™, and the capability to develop commercial infrastructure and machines, means the future looks very bright for P2i.

Why does a wet phone die?

Blog Entry: Lab interview with P2i scientist -

What happens when your phone gets wet?

There is a magnitude of possible outcomes when your phone gets wet. If you think about the number of entry points for water to get in the phone, then times that by the number of possible angles of entry, force of entry, droplet size (fully submerged, spray, mist, sweat) and type of liquid, you begin to see why the answer is not so black and white!

Perhaps one of the most obvious outcomes is that your phone ‘short circuits’ and powers out. If you think of a circuit board like a series of motorways, in the same way that we drive cars according to the direction and paths provided, the circuit board controls the flow of electrons, ensuring that your device works as specified. However, when you add water to the mix, it’s like driving cross country or along sand dunes where there are no roads to act as a guide. As a conductor of electricity the water allows the electrons to flow freely.

With the liquid inside the phone allowing the electricity to flow in unintended directions, the essential voltage differences across the circuit board are interrupted, causing excessive electric current, heat and power outage.

Ok, so if I’m lucky enough to have my phone turn back on, why does it start going ‘funny’ after a couple of days/weeks?

If you have ever opened a water damaged phone or piece of electronics you may have seen what looks like rust or perhaps a white powdery substance. In the first instance the water or liquid is interacting with the metal causing a chemical reaction, as you would see with any metals exposed to the elements, like a tin roof. Except unlike the roof, the addition of energy supplied by the phone under power, accelerates the process. This causes degradation and wearing away of the metals inhibiting them from performing effectively.

This is particularly evident in devices that are used in environments such as the gym or are kept close to the skin like headphones and hearing aids, where the addition of the salts in our sweat aid in the severity of the chemical reaction.

So what is it that makes a phone die altogether?

Well this takes us back to the highway analogy. There is a type of corrosion called ‘electrochemical migration’. This is essentially the movement of metal ions from one point on a circuit board to another. This is able to occur because the water allows the free flow of electricity; so where once there were paths for the electricity to flow, allowing controlled differences in electrical charge between different points on the circuit, now the water allows the metal ions to migrate. Eventually the metal ions will bridge the two points through the formation of a metal dendrite, acting as if a new road was created. Now, even when the water recedes, this new road permanently disrupts the control of electricity on the circuit board and the phone is no longer able to function as intended.

Wearable Electronics

As the culmination of electronics and textiles merge to create a new market of wearable technology, P2i is well positioned to combine its expertise in these individual areas to develop a nano-coating solution for the industry which ensures product reliability is not a barrier to success.

The wearable technology market is suited for rapid growth over the next few years, with predications estimating a rise of more than 500 percent from 2011 to 2016. For the textile industry, this emerging market provides new product opportunities, with early adoptions including Bluetooth gloves, connected sneakers, and heart rate monitors incorporated into sports bras.

One barrier to product design and consumer adoption of wearable technology however, is a question over the reliability of these devices in everyday circumstances. Not only does the product’s design need to take into account routine integrity standards, but the electrical components of the technology also need to be able to withstand environmental contact with liquid hazards such as sweat, rain and washing.

As the world leader in liquid repellent nano-coating technology, P2i is positioned to play a key role in increasing this reliability and enabling the industry to reach the ‘holy grail’ of truly washable, wearable technology.

About P2i

P2i is uniquely positioned to provide tailored, invisible functionality across a range of manufacturing requirements, through proven nano-coating solutions. With commercial expertise driving application across five market sectors and a commitment to global service and support, P2i delivers outstanding performance improvement and new market opportunities to a wide range of products.

P2i was established in 2004 to commercialize technologies developed by the UK Government’s Defence Science & Technology Laboratory (DSTL). Research and development have identified innovative applications equipment and processing methods, culminating in a growing patent portfolio extending to over 65 families. Ongoing acquisitions have provided valuable new technologies such as antimicrobial, super hydrophilic and protein resistance coatings - making P2i the global leader in invisible surface functionality.

In addition to headquarters in the United Kingdom, P2i has a technology centre in the United States and an applications centre in China. P2i's technology is indicated in the Electronics sector by either its splash-proof or Dunkable™ nano-coatings.

This information has been sourced, reviewed and adapted from materials provided by P2i.

For more information on this source, please visit P2i.

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