Photo Courtesy of HzO
Many new products strive to protect mobile devices from water. HzO Inc. uses a chemical process to protect electronics inside and out.

HzO's latest "waterblock" technology for protecting mobile devices may have been one of the hottest displays at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It certainly was the wettest.

The Salt Lake City company helps make sensitive electronic devices impervious to water and will be incorporating the feature in many big electronic manufacturers' product lines this summer, according to Paul Clayson, HzO president. He says the product coats critical components inside the devices to help them function after they get wet.

"It's a kind of nanocoating that we apply through a vacuum process, so we're able to protect [the device] from grounding when water touches the assembly. This allows it to operate underwater," Clayson adds.

During a demonstration at CES, an HzO employee's phone was shown to be operational even though it had been submerged in a tank of water. It became a hot media draw at the show, which attracts some 150,000 attendees.

Technology providers are scrambling to provide new levels of protection for mobile devices: Some tout super-tough cases or ultra-thin protective coatings, while others promote air-tight seals.

The process Clayson's company uses turns a chemical into a gas, then introduces the gas into a vacuum chamber in which all foreign molecular bodies are eliminated, Clayson says. The gas then attaches itself to anything inside that chamber, such as the guts of an iPhone, he adds.

The minuscule scale on which this gas penetrates an electronic device protects against liquid, thereby nullifying the kryptonite of electronics: water damage.

Todd Sutton, business unit manager at Zachry Construction Corp., San Antonio, likes the concept. "Any kind of guard against rain and bad weather would help on a construction site," Sutton says.

Protective coating is a key trend for mobile devices. Sutton vows to buy the protective iPad case that will be offered by Lifeproof, San Diego, this summer. "The case meets all IP67 [protection rating] military requirements and even allows video to work under six feet of water," Sutton says.

Liquipel, Santa Ana, Calif., offers another coating play that applies a microscopic covering to phones.

Whereas Liquipel offers to retrofit some smart phones, coating them for $59, HzO aims to apply its technology only in the manufacturing phase of production.

HzO's process guards only against water. The innovation behind the technology arose from tragedy, says electrical engineer Sid Martin, who discovered the chemical process used by HzO. When Martin worked at the Northeast Maritime Institute (NMI), Fair-haven, Mass., a mariner student fell off a barge traveling down the Mississippi.

"He was holding onto a line for 25 minutes when the barge entered a lock, and he was crushed between the barge and the lock door," says Martin. The student was trying to call the ship via radio and his own cell phone. However, the wet devices were useless. "I said, I have an idea to make that radio waterproof," Martin says.

Working out of an NMI garage, Martin developed a process that allowed a radio to last for 66 hours under the water. "Someone asked if I could do it with a phone, and I did," he says. But when he showed off his technology, no one believed him. "People thought it was a magic trick," he says. "They asked me to take off my jacket before dropping the phone into a glass of water."