Apple and Samsung have long been embroiled in a legal battle in court, but the next phase of their rivalry could possibly play out in laboratories. Graphene is a material more durable than steel that will be critical to build the next-generation of smartphones and wearables, and Apple, Samsung and Google are gathering as many Graphene related patents as they can.
Graphene is made from a single layer of graphite that involves tightly bonded atoms in a hexagonal structure. Since this layer is just one atom thick, graphene is very thin (a million times thinner than paper), yet much stronger by virtue of its arrangement. The material is also flexible, conductive and transparent making it an ideal candidate for use in touch screens, especially on wearable devices that can bend.
The potential has Samsung, Apple and Google Inc. amassing arsenals of graphene-related patents, in part because sales of so-called wearable computing devices is predicted to rise 14 fold in five years.
Samsung has 405 published applications, according to a 2013 report from the U.K.’s Intellectual Property Office, which said the South Korean company appeared to be ahead of its rivals. In the U.S., Samsung has 38 patents and at least 17 applications using the word “graphene” in the summary of its invention, according to data from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Apple, based in Cupertino, California, has at least two patent applications with the office related to the material.
As with almost any new technology, the challenge with graphene is cheaply mass producing it at Apple’s scale of hundreds of millions of devices. Apple and other companies are working with researches for solving this problem:
The world’s biggest electronics makers are turning to researchers such as Hong Byung Hee, a professor at Seoul National University, who’s developed a patent for mass-producing graphene-based displays.
“Global technology companies are facing innovation limits in hardware and design, and in order to step over to the next level, they need to adopt new materials like graphene,” Hong said in an interview. “Our key graphene technology is receiving considerable interest from firms including Apple, Samsung and even Google.”
While these companies might be interested in purchasing this patent for exclusive use, Hong says he doesn’t want to sell the patent, but is willing to license it. Samsung last month announced that it had discovered a “groundbreaking method” to commercialise synthesising graphene, but it didn’t mention if its technique was based on Hong’s patent.
Graphene will let Apple, Samsung (and other manufacturers) make wearable products that are much different that the current crop of smartwatches. Samsung and LG have already introduced a few smartphones with curved, bendable screens.