The Folding Phone Screens Made Of Insect Protein
Folding smartphones of the future could have screens made of insect protein.
It’s the most elastic material on earth, and it’s what allows a flea to jump 100 times its own height, or the dragonfly to flap its wings 30 times a second.
A startup in Israel is genetically engineering the protein – called resilin – as a cheap, effective and sustainable alternative to the ultra-thin glass (UTG) or special plastic (polyimide) currently used by Samsung, Lenovo, Motorola, Oppo and other phone manufacturers.
“We decided to bring this amazing material into the industry,” says Dr. Liron Nesiel, CEO of Smart Resilin, who studied molecular biology, protein engineering and biotechnology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“We don’t kill insects in order to take out their resilin. We use genetic engineering techniques to take the DNA that codes for it and we introduce it into bacterial cells that produce the resilin using a fermentation process, which is by definition a circular, ecological, and scalable process.
To give it the strength it needs, in addition to the flexibility, the resilin, derived from the fruit fly, or drosophila, is combined with cellulose nanocrystals (CNCs), usually derived from wood pulp.
Together they create a material that will be perfect in all but one, important respect. It isn’t actually waterproof, in its current form. But researchers are confident that’s a problem they can resolve.
“It’s a composite of sugar and protein and it’s soluble in water. But the screen itself is built from layers, so the first step is to use it in the internal but not the outer layer,” says Dr. Nesiel.
“In the future, we are looking to maybe use additional material to mix in our composite, or to add a coating layer from the outside that will prevent water from directly solubilizing the structure.
“We’ve had a lot of interest from companies that build smartphones, and they aren’t troubled by the fact that it is water soluble. They say it’s OK, they can use it in the inner layer of the foldable smartphone.”
She says they’re working to develop a display with exactly the optical and mechanical properties that partner companies will want.
Any research in biology can throw up unexpected challenges, she says, but she hopes to resolve current issues in the next couple of years.
“We have been able to improve greatly in the last two years and there’s still development to go,” she says.
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Samsung currently leads the market for foldable smartphones with its Galaxy Z Fold 4 and Galaxy Z Flip 4, and there’s also the Motorola Razr 2022.
Some phones, such as the Microsoft Surface Duo, are foldable but with two separate screens. There are rumors of a Google foldable, called Pixel Fold, and that Apple may introduce an iPhone with a foldable screen.
The resilin composite that Smart Resilin is developing could replace the glass or polyimide screen on any device, including wearables, regardless of whether it needs to be flexible.
And resilin has uses far beyond screens. It can store and rapidly release energy better than any other material in the world. You can stretch it or compress it, and it hardly loses any energy.
“Think about any kind of shock absorbers, in cars, in aerospace industries and elsewhere. Resilin is the best shock absorber in the world,” says Dr. Nesiel.
She says it is far more effective in sports shoes than the capsules of thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) many manufacturers currently use.
Resilin can also replace rubber, plastic and nylon in reconstituted leather, adhesives, sports rackets, squash balls, high-end packaging and numerous other products.
The company, based in Karmei Yosef, central Israel, has developed a hair straightening product, which is likely to be its first commercial product. It coats the surface of the hair with a resilin composite, rather than harmful chemicals.
The work on resilin started when Prof. Oded Shoseyov, at the Hebrew University, began investigating its properties. A friend asked him if there was a way to rid his dog of fleas and he came up with the idea of injecting a dog with resilin to kill the fleas that drink its blood.
It didn’t work, but he was fascinated by resilin’s properties as a rubber replacement, and after eight years Smart Resilin was established, building on his research and with him now serving as its CSO (chief scientific officer).
“Other companies are producing other proteins, like spider silk, but not resilin. And we’re aiming to be the first to bring resilin to the market as a raw material,” says Dr. Nesiel.
“The vision is to even go to the tire industry, which is one of the most polluting industries in the world.”