How Waterproof Nanocoating Works to Shield Your Smartphone from Splashes and Submersion

By Wesley Fenlon

Liquipel, HzO and P2i all offer the same water resistant nanocoating process, but only Liquipel is working directly with consumers.

Years and years of use train us to expect certain things of our electronics. How do you react when a smartphone falls in a tank of water and doesn't immediately short out? Shock? Confusion? 2012 might be the year that reaction begins to change. Water-resistant coatings made big waves at CES this year by doing the seemingly impossible: shielding sensitive electronics from water with no visible casing or coating.

Liquipel, HzO and P2i all showed off waterproof nanocoatings at CES that are 1000 times thinner than a human hair. The services are essentially identical: a nanometer-thin coating is applied to a device as a gas, allowing it to penetrate inside the casing and repel liquids. Any of the three could be integrated into the smartphone manufacturing process in the near future, but only one--Liquipel--is offering a service directly to consumers.

All three nanocoating services describe their products with very similar language. Liquipel claims to be a "revolutionary process that applies a waterproof coating to your electronic device to protect them in the event of accidental exposure to liquids." That doesn't address the actual technology at work, but Liquipel's videos confirm the nanocoating is applied with a vapor process in a vacuum. They also use some seriously hyperbolic marketing language.

HzO's website is a bit more descriptive: they say their product is "a chemical vapor deposition that blankets vital electronic circuitry with a nano-thin film containing highly effective, water-repelling properties."

P2i's process dramatically reduces the surface energy of a product, so that when liquids come into contact with it, they form beads and simply run off.

P2i does the best job of detailing its nano coating: "P2i's patented technology employs a special pulsed ionized gas (plasma), which is created within a vacuum chamber, to attach a nanometre-thin polymer layer over the entire surface of a product. This process dramatically reduces the surface energy of a product, so that when liquids come into contact with it, they form beads and simply run off."

Here's where they diverge: HzO and P2i are shopping their coating process around as an addition to manufacturing. Both are outwardly optimistic about making deals with major manufacturers and bringing their technologies to the smartphone market sometime this year. And as futuristic as this all seems, it's not a completely new technology: P2i has videos on Youtube dating back to 2009, and nanotechnology has been showing up in consumer products for years before that.

P2i's already found a customer in Motorola. The RAZR ships with a coating called "SplashGuard," but a test from HzO seems to indicate the coating isn't fully waterproof.

Potential HzO bias notwithstanding, SplashGuard doesn't seem to live up to the standards of the tissue paper tests put forth by all three companies.

Liquipel will coat your smartphone for $60, so long as it's on the list of approved devices. The fact that Liquipel exists is actually great for this nanotechnology in general. If consumer feedback from coated devices comes back positive, companies like Apple and Samsung will be that much quicker to jump on board and integrate nanocoating into the manufacturing process.