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TechWatch: Making Electronics Waterproof

Potential solutions to protecting military and civilian electronics from the elements

More than a decade of combat in Southwest Asia raised many new problems and led to new solutions for U.S. warfighters. But high on the list was an old concern, one that has plagued the military since the dawn of field electrical and electronic devices: Their vulnerability to high humidity and exposure to water, whether rain or by the user moving through a body of water.

Back home, civilians were discovering their own “essential” high-tech devices, especially cellphones, were at risk to many of the same natural enemies, especially accidental dunks in water or even wet snow. While incremental improvements in cellphone cases have provided some “resistant” protection against minor liquid encounters, submergence continues to be a major cause of electronic death.

For the past couple of years, attendees of the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES®) in Las Vegas, Nev., have seen prototype demonstrations of methods to make electronic devices truly “waterproof.” Now three of those companies – U.S.-based HzO and Liquipel and P2i in the U.K. – say their technologies are ready for prime time, both as part of the manufacturing process and as a retrofit for the military.

P2i began as a U.K. Ministry of Defense project to use super-hydrophobic technologies to enhance the ability of military clothing to protect soldiers from chemical attack without reducing the “breathability” or flexibility of fabrics such as cotton.

These are not cases, but different nanotech approaches to apply microscopic protective layers – a magnitude thinner than a human hair – over and inside electronic devices while still enabling the use of touchscreens, power and USB ports, built-in cameras, microphones, and speakers. That also includes devices using removable batteries, SIM cards, etc.

HZO Waterproof Android Phone

HzO image of a waterproofed Android phone. The process coats the components of electronics with a waterproof film. HzO image

Liquipel says its super-hydrophobic process “creates a self-sealing intelligent coating that provides electronics with protection from accidental prolonged exposure to liquids … [penetrating and coating] both the external and internal components for complete device protection.”

HzO’s description is similar – “a coating of bonded molecules that seals the internal components of electronic devices. This chemical vapor deposition process blankets vital electronic circuitry to protect even the most sensitive devices from damage by water, moisture, contaminating particles and humidity.”

As is P2i’s, which says its process “employs plasma-enhanced vapor deposition processing to apply an ultrathin polymer layer onto all surfaces of a product. The process takes place under low pressure within a vacuum chamber at room temperature. The coating is introduced as a vapor and ionized. This allows for the development of the polymer layer, which forms a covalent bond with the product’s surface, making it extremely durable.”

While Liquipel also is looking to a potentially lucrative military market, it currently stands apart from its competitors in one other way – it is the only one of the three that will coat individual consumer devices as an aftermarket process.

None provides much technical detail on their patented processes beyond that, although each claims its process is superior to the other two. However, demonstrations by each, including keeping a functioning iPhone® submerged in a fish tank for hours, show the value of nano-coatings to protect the new generation of high-priced consumer smartphones. But they also open the door for protecting sensitive military electronics from the often-harsh environments in which they operate.

P2i began as a U.K. Ministry of Defense project to use super-hydrophobic technologies to enhance the ability of military clothing to protect soldiers from chemical attack without reducing the “breathability” or flexibility of fabrics such as cotton.

“With P2i’s technology, completed garments can be processed ensuring that seams, stitching and even zippers are treated with the nano-coating. This provides superior liquid repellent benefits as there are no weak points attracting or absorbing hazardous liquids,” the company claims.

HzO lists clothing among a number of future possibilities, but adds the military already is investigating the post-production use of their WaterBlock™ process to protect radios, smartphones, night vision goggles, unmanned aerial vehicoles, and other mission-essential electronics. Saying it meets many related MILSPECs while eliminating the need for protective seals, boxes, or bags that might break, HzO maintains its “micro-layer of bonded molecules, forming a barrier 100X thicker than other waterproof coatings … seeks to be another level of protection for the soldiers of the world.”

While Liquipel also is looking to a potentially lucrative military market, it currently stands apart from its competitors in one other way – it is the only one of the three that will coat individual consumer devices as an aftermarket process.

“We are committed to getting this revolutionary technology in the hands of consumers everywhere,” company co-founder and chief operating officer Kevin Baker said.

With the exception of offering protection for military electronics already in service, HzO and P2i currently work directly with manufacturers, looking to make their waterproof coatings a standard part of the assembly line for new devices. HzO also offers manufacturers a consumer option; they can ship a single device to the coating company, which then sends the processed unit directly to the buyer.

Whether one or all succeed, potential commercial and military users see nano-coating technology not only as a major breakthrough in protecting delicate electronics, but in expanding their use in ways and environments not previously possible.

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...