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A patent that was recently awarded to Apple suggests that the company has been seriously exploring a new foldable form factor for the iPhone.
The patent award, which was uncovered by Patently Apple, describes an electronic device housed in fiber, aluminum, plastic, glass, or ceramic casing, which is all standard building material for Apple’s iPhone. What’s new are the carbon nanotubes detailed in the patent that would allow a device to bend in half without disrupting the signal paths housed within it: “Conductive carbon nanotube paths can form signal paths that are flexible and resistant to cracking.”
Using single-wall carbon nanotubes, multi-wall nanotubes, or a combination of both, Apple could potentially create flexible conductive paths for a wide array of structures commonly found in electronic devices, including signal cables, camera structures, antennae, printed circuits, and the flexible substrates used in touch sensors and displays.
Take printed circuits, for instance, which are used to route signals within electronic devices such as computers and smartphones. A flexible printed circuit with carbon nanotubes interposed between its polymer layers would be able to bend without cracking the signal lines. Although there are other methods to reinforce flexible printed circuits, they can lead to reduced flexibility and add undesired bulk, leading to a heavier device.
This isn’t the first we’ve heard of foldable smartphones. Apple’s chief competitor Samsung has notably invested heavily in its pursuit of similar technology. Patently Apple also found two other Apple patents relating to foldable phones that date back to 2013.
Even taken together, these patents don’t guarantee anything. Apple files patents all the time, sometimes simply to prevent others from claiming them. But the filings do suggest that Apple has been seriously considering a clamshell iPhone form factor for the past few years.