Could pesky fingerprints and smudges soon be a thing of the past?

Taylor Martin
 from  Concord, NC
| December 4, 2011

Some of the most recent improvements to mobile technology include super fast and efficient processors, faster wireless speeds and thinner, lighter, more durable devices. But if we look back just a tad further, the most monumental improvements have come in the form of design and usability. No longer are smartphone fitted with tiny, inaccurate displays. Large, finger-friendly touchscreens have taken precedence over tiny keyboards and pesky physical buttons.

My idea of the perfect smartphone has entirely changed – abundant display real estate is top priority. That said, touchscreens still aren't perfect. They come with some inefficiencies of their own. For instance, typing on a solid, flat surface is far from reassuring and definitely takes a lot of getting used to. And through all of our tapping and swiping around on the display, our greasy and oily fingers constantly leave behind nasty streaks, fingerprints and smudges.

Sure, a quick wipe on the sleeve or pant leg should clear the screen of most fingerprints. But if you use your phone (or tablet) as much as I do, wiping the display only proves futile and to be a major annoyance. More importantly, they can lead to security problems, especially with lock screen methods such as Android's famous pattern lock or even a four-digit PIN. Leftover smudges can easily narrow the possibilities of patterns or numbers for any keen eye that wants to snoop through your device.

In an attempt to fight the pesky – or avert the unlikely password crack – display smudges, many manufacturers have adopted treating their displays to an oleophobic coating, which resists oils. However, as shown by the iPad and other Apple-made devices, the results of applying an oleophobic coating are mediocre, at best. While using my iPad, I never went anywhere without a microfiber cloth. And my Galaxy Tab 10.1 gets the wipe-down treatment at least a few times per day.

For those of you who hate smudges as much as I do, the answer to twitch-inducing fingerprint smudges may not be far off. According to a report that originated from the online journal Science and further divulged by Technology Review of MIT, German researchers have discovered that soot from a burning candle and silica can easily repel smudges and water.

The trick? According to David Talbot of Technology Review:

"Making surfaces able to repel fluids—whether water- or oil-based—is also important for industrial and biomedical applications. But it's harder to make a surface that repels oil or organic solvents as opposed to water because oil has a far lower surface tension than water.

What's required is a very specific type of surface roughness—akin to the branches of a budding tree—that achieves oil-repellency."

As Talbot further explains, this has been understood for some time, but has been difficult to replicate. This is just what the researchers at Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research in Mainz have accomplished.

First, they held a glass slide over a burning candle to collect the soot, deposited in spheres roughly 30 to 40 nanometers in diameter. To protect the layer of soot, they then coated it in a 25 nanometer thick coating of silica. Baking the slide at 600 ºC, the silica coating was hardened and the black soot turned transparent.

The glass was tested by being sprayed with various oils and solvents. The researchers then "took micrographs of these liquid droplets bouncing up and down like ping-pong balls," says Talbot. Since this coating is repellent to both oil and water bases, it is said to be "superamphiphobic" and can also adhere to various metals, such as steel, copper and aluminum.

Unfortunately, there are still some kinks to be worked out. Holding a candle up to a piece of glass, coating it in silica and placing it in an oven is far from an efficient manufacturing process. Also, the materials still lack the durability needed to last for any significant amount of time. The coating can easily be scratched off, or it could still wear off with time.

Regardless, this method will only prove to be a major step towards putting an end to those mucky fingerprints and smudges that build up on your smartphone and tablet displays. It could still be years before we see any devices making use of superamphiphobic coatings, so don't go throwing away your stash of microfiber cloths just yet.

Do smudges and fingerprints on your electornics' displays bother you? Do you constantly find yourself wiping the display off with your sleeve, pant leg or a microfiber cloth? Like me, are you excited over the thought of truly smudge- and scratch-free smartphone displays?

Image via Technology Review