Apple Buys Out LiquidMetal Patents To Stay One Step Ahead In Materials Game

Apple has purchased worldwide exclusive rights to use materials developed by LiquidMetal, a company you may remember from the demonstration video that made the viral rounds some time back. It featured a ball of steel bouncing on one of their special alloys for substantially longer than on steel or titanium — demonstrating how far superior the LiquidMetal was at retaining kinetic energy. I don’t think Apple is interested in creating an iBall (Bounce Different); this purchase is prescient for other reasons.

One of the most basic attractions to the Apple brand is that their products are very different from their competitors. Not, of course, in any real ways — the level of similarity between Macs and PCs really makes the whole conflict absurd — but in ways that are nonetheless obvious to the average user. The design and build of their products is one of the most important planks in their platform, and the purchase of LiquidMetals reaffirms that.

Here’s the basic idea of LM materials, if “basic idea” can really be applied to a fundamental molecular restructuring:

Liquidmetal alloys represent the first enabling materials technology since the creation of thermoplastics and possess characteristics that make them superior in many ways to other commercially-viable materials. First, they have an “amorphous” atomic structure, which is unprecedented for structural metals. Second, they include a multi-component chemical composition, which can be optimized for various properties and processes. Finally, they lend themselves to process technology similar to that possessed by plastics.

What can this mean for Apple? It’d be unwise to speculate, as it’s not clear for what materials exactly Apple bought LM. Obviously there is the super-elastic alternative to titanium, but that was being marketed as a spring metal, and bounce isn’t really an important factor in laptop construction. There are two likely possibilities as to why Apple picked up LM now.

First, it is possible that LM simply had existing contracts and obligations that couldn’t be bought out. The isolation of the affected patents into a wholly-owned subsidiary may be standard tactics, I’m not sure. Either way, it’s possible that Apple liked what they saw over the last couple years and had arranged to buy up the IP as soon as it was unencumbered. There are plenty of existing products and projects using LM materials; it’s not clear whether those will be discontinued or whether that IP was isolated or renegotiated.

Second, LM may have created something new. I feel this is the the more likely option, since they do say that their materials have variable atomic makeups and can be tailored to this or that spec, and R&D must be their lifeblood. Could it be that they hit on something perfect for, say, lightweight computing devices, and have been shopping it around? Apple’s famous unibody aluminum construction is nice, but it’s not a simple or cheap process and aluminum has its weaknesses. Whatever LM has cooked up, it probably has some advantages over aluminum construction (I won’t guess what) or perhaps is a suitable aluminum analogue for lower-end devices or accessories. The known properties of LM’s materials are promising: extremely hard and strong, resistant to corrosion, scratching, and staining, and highly conductive to heat and electricity. And if they’ve managed to get the weight down below aluminum, that would be a coup indeed.

The specifics, at any rate, aren’t really important until the details of the material Apple coveted are made public (if they aren’t already). The important part is that Apple is continuing to make large investments in the area of anomalous materials so that their products can retain the anomaly cachet.

It may seem like a superficial difference which materials your laptop’s shell is made of, but sometimes superficial differences are the most important. Like when, for example, all the rest of the hardware in the laptop comes standard on your competitors, and you’re charging more for it. To have something superficial yet truly different is a great way of redirecting the consumer. “What really matters, after all? Sure, all computers are basically the same, transistors and memory and stuff. What you want is a computer that is as unique as you are.” Things along that line — tropes uttered by most companies, but mostly empty because their product doesn’t have even that superficial difference from the rest. If you stripped off the logos, no consumer would be able to tell the difference between a Dell, an HP, an Acer… but a Mac sticks out like a trout in the milk. That’s a hell of a thing, and to lose it would be a hell of a thing, too.

So good for them: they know what they’ve got and they’re not afraid to buy a worldwide exclusive license to an entire class of materials to keep it going.