Alcoa developing alloys to protect phones

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For the stumblebums of the world who habitually damage their electronic devices by dropping them, Alcoa has a smartphone, tablet or notebook for you.

Alcoa announced Friday that researchers at the aluminum producer's Westmoreland County research center have developed a process that allows consumer electronic manufacturers to use lightweight, high-strength aerospace alloys as enclosures for the devices without sacrificing the finish and brilliant colors that consumers demand.

Alcoa says using aerospace aluminum instead of moderate- to low-strength alloys will reduce the weight of a smartphone by up to 10 percent while making the device more dent-resistant.

The company applied for a patent for the technology, known as ProStrength Finishing, earlier this year. It is an improvement in a process known as anodizing, which aluminum producers have used for years because it enables them to put a corrosion-resistant, durable clear or color finish on their metal.

In anodizing, aluminum is immersed in an acid bath and an electric current is sent through the solution. Dies can be added to the bath to change the color of the metal.

"It's an integral part of the aluminum surface. It won't chip. It won't flake, any of that," said Leighton Cooper, director of technology at the Alcoa Technical Center.

Mr. Cooper said conventional anodizing worked well with moderate- and low-strength aluminum alloys. But when it was used on aerospace grades, the finish and surface of the metal was inconsistent. The new process changes that.

"You can get that very consistent, clear look or you can get clear colors as well," he said. "That wasn't achievable before the development of ProStrength."

Aerospace alloys are 100 to 150 percent stronger than the aluminum currently used in the devices, according to Mr. Cooper. Using them in conjunction with ProStrength will give consumers the lighter weight devices they are demanding, without sacrificing aesthetics and durability, he said.

Alcoa said its technical center is the largest, light metals research center in the world. Other advancements to come out of it recently are a wastewater treatment process that mimics wetlands and a process for treating aluminum sheet that will expand its use in the automotive market.

Len Boselovic: or 412-263-1941.

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