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Thursday, 25 April 2013

How "wet" is "wet"?

The recent WIRED article regarding the confusion over indicator strips turning pink in humidity has me wondering what we mean by the term “water damage”. Am I putting my phone in danger from water damage when I use it in the bathroom to play the radio while I take a shower? Was it ultimately my own sweat that killed my MP3 player when I used to tuck it into my bra at the gym? And will my e-reader fall prey to the same faults if I keep using it in the kitchen, holding it in one hand whilst stirring the pot of steaming pasta with the other?

We learnt in the recent article, Why does a wet phone die? that electricity in the presence of water can cause electrochemical migration and permanent short circuiting of devices. But surely a bit of steam or sweat is a different matter, even if it is enough to turn an indicator strip pink? Another question for the gang in the P2i Labs, I think.

Can sweat and humidity really cause damage to electronic devices?
When P2i first emerged into the electronics sector, it was on hearing aid devices. These are very expensive, small, pieces of electronics that live behind the ear. A big issue in the hearing aid industry is corrosion damage, as the close proximity to the skin allows for the transferal of sweat and adds to the humidity and amount of moisture in the air around the device. This causes the metals inside the device to have a chemical reaction and begin to oxidize leading to the gradual degradation of the materials. P2i’s nano-coating dramatically reduces this corrosion damage and in just three years P2i went from coating zero to about 60% of the hearing devices produced globally.

How do you know what’s causing the damage?
One of the tests we did with the hearing devices, which we are also doing on smartphones, is known as an ‘accelerated corrosion test’. The idea is that over a period of days, we can mimic what a device is exposed to over its lifetime. The test allows us to introduce phases of increased salt or moisture, followed by dryer times, all the while increasing and decreasing the temperature; again mimicking the phases a device will go through in the real world. The aim of the test is to see how the materials in the phone will “weather” the conditions.

The video below shows the difference between a phone treated with the splash-proof (previously known as Aridion™) nano-coating, compared to an untreated device. The phones are going through the exact same test, and are periodically removed and photographed. 


What tends to happen is that as the temperature changes, water which may have entered the phone as innocent humidity, then condenses inside the phone, forming larger droplets. Now, not only do you have the oxidation of the metals, but you’re also in danger of electrochemical migration water damage, without ever getting your phone wet. 

Should I be worried?
Believe it or not, manufacturers are continuously looking for ways to make your phones more reliable. Motorola and Alcatel have already signed up to put the splash-proof coating on a range of devices before you buy them, so you don’t need to worry. We believe that as people continue to integrate the use of the mobile phone into every aspect of their life (including taking their phones in and out of humid conditions) then this trend from manufacturers will only increase. 



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