Waterproofing Electronics Using Nanotechnology
The premise of nanotechnology is that once you start looking at things smaller than 100 nanometers, you’ll notice that the normal rules of physics don’t apply. This means that you can start manipulating things to your advantage, such as creating materials that have superior properties. One desirable property is called “the hydrophobic effect” which means that a material can then repel water. For example, a company called Nanotex uses hydrophobic coatings on clothing or bed sheets to prevent stains. Another obvious application for hydrophobic materials is in the protection of electronics.
It’s been more than five years since we last looked at companies like Europlasma and P2i which are both developing methods to waterproof electronics using nanotechnology. Last year, Europlasma was acquired by Andlinger & Company, a private equity firm that already owns another company called “Coating Plasma Innovation” which uses plasma technology for coatings. P2i claims that their technology is being used by the “world’s leading phone manufacturers including Huawei, Lenovo, Motorola, Sony and Xiaomi,” and they recently released a new product line called Dunkable. Both companies appear to be alive and well, but another competitor came across our radar recently that seems to be making a lot of progress in the area of waterproofing electronics.
Waterproofing Electronics Using Nanotechnology
Founded in 2011, Utah startup HZO has now raised $225 million in capital with 12 worldwide factories and a contracted workforce that will exceed 2,000 people this year. The company’s core product offering is their revolutionary Spectrum of Protection™ technologies, proprietary equipment, and unique processes that help make electronics waterproof and resistant to corrosion. Their most recent round of funding – $40 million in a Series D round and $30 million in debt funding – will be used to build on “the triple-digit growth the company experienced each of the last two years.” Their wide range of coating solutions fall into two broad categories.
- Nano Coatings – simple to apply in manufacturing and offer protection against splashes like rain or sweat
- Barrier Coatings – called Parylene, this micron-thin coating provides significant protection against prolonged submersion or extremely corrosive environments
HZO also produces the vapor deposition equipment used to apply their coatings, offering “the largest coating chambers in the industry and proven high-throughput technology capable of coating millions of units.”
Among the companies using HZO’s technology include big names like Nike, Rakuten Kobo, Motorola, Dell, and Netatmo, all of which have disclosed publicly that HZO is the company behind their waterproofed electronics devices. In order to understand HZO’s technology better, we need to look at the standards applied when making electronic products durable. (It’s actually quite useful to know the next time you go shopping for electronics.)
Ingress Protection Marketing
The International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) is a standards organization tasked with “International Standards and Conformity Assessment for all electrical, electronic and related technologies.” Drop a toaster in your evening bath and you’ll quickly see why electrical devices need some sort of regulatory body governing safety and other aspects including when a manufacturer can deem something to be “waterproof.” Let’s take the latest Samsung smartphone, the S10, which retails for a cool $1250. If you look through the user manual, you’ll come across the below statement:
The value you see above, “IP68,” is referred to as an “IP Code” or “Ingress Protection Marking” and if specified, needs to have two numbers. In this case, the two numbers are a “six” followed by an “eight.” The first number refers to the ability of the device to withstand penetration from solid objects while the second number refers to the ability of the device to withstand varying degrees of water exposure. The below example depicts a device with an IP rating of “IP65.”
Going back to the example of the Samsung S10, we can see that a rating of IP68 is about as high as we’re able to get given the present classification system. When you look at a total addressable market for waterproofing electronics, this extends well beyond handheld consumer devices.
Additional Use Cases for Waterproofing
Think about outdoor security cameras as an example. A French company called Netatmo makes smart outdoor cameras that need protection from rain, snow, salt fog, and more. Traditional coatings posed a problem because they prevented thermal dissipation. A micron-thin coating of HZO’s natural polymer, Parylene, proved to be the perfect solution to the problem. Any electronic product produced that might be exposed to the elements ought to have the maximum IP rating as a common feature.
Other companies using HZO technology include LifeBeacon which provides a medical tracking device for the elderly which is meant to be worn at all times, even while showering. Also using HZO to waterproof their devices is a company called LocationNow which provides GPS locations for the elderly and dementia patients through smartwatches which need to be capable of handling exposure to water. Another company called Rakuten produces e-readers and wanted to create one that was not only slim but entirely waterproof. Due to the device’s slimmer profile, legacy protection like gaskets, plugs, and mechanical seals weren’t an option. That’s where they turned to HZO for a solution.
The resulting Aurora One remains one of the slimmest e-readers on the market while having an IPX8 waterproof rating. (Note that the “X” in this rating simply stands for whatever the solids rating ends up being for the device.) There are numerous case studies on the HZO website, but it’s pretty easy to think of dozens of applications for this sort of technology.
Late last year, HZO acquired a London-based firm called Semblant which was “a leader in delivering plasma-based waterproofing processes.” This will allow them to expand their solutions portfolio for an even broader number of use cases. Soon, we should expect to see all electronic devices being sold offer IP68 ratings. In an age where we’re creating synthetic life, we shouldn’t have to walk on eggshells whenever we’re around water with our electronic devices. Think about how many times you’ve ruined a laptop because you spilled your beer or wine over the keyboard. (Not a raging alcoholic? Just substitute beer or wine with your non-alcoholic drink of choice.) HZO’s latest round of funding gives them plenty of capital to continue expanding and perhaps we’ll see some more consolidation in this space.