Hands-on with Corning's bendable Willow Glass (exclusive)

Glass so thin and pliable it bends? CNET gets ahead of the curve with Corning's future tech for smartphones and more.

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LAS VEGAS--There's no question that flexible screens are the future, along with the bendable products that go with them. Corning, maker of Gorilla Glass 3, was kind enough to drop by our CNET booth at CES to show me Willow Glass, its take on bendable glass so thin you can curve it in a deep arc without breaking.

Willow Glass is as thick as a business card -- only 0.1 millimeter thick -- and as malleable as promised. I could easily bend it within its plastic laminate cover, but at this early stage in development, I wasn't able to handle the bare glass.

Manufacturers who use the glass in future products will be able to spool the material and bend it around displays, like smartphones, for example.

The glass can also conform to curves, making it ideal for rounded and circular structures, like the wavy walls of CNET's CES booth. In addition to forming an interior or base material for products -- called the substrate -- it can also protect sensitive electronic parts from moisture. Think of the photovoltaic cells used in solar paneling. Now imagine solar roofing you can carry onto a roof in a roll and unfurl all at once, rather than apply tile by tile.

In the tech world, Corning is synonymous with its chemically strengthened Gorilla Glass products that cover smartphones, tablets, and laptops. This flexible Willow Glass is a different beast, meant for its lightness and razor-thin profile, not for durability and protection.

Corning's flexible Willow Glass
This is the glass of your future device. Josh Miller/CNET

Though extremely flexible, Willow Glass can break if bent too deeply. This is an important reminder for followers of the flexi-screen craze. Corning will focus on increasing the ultraslim glass' reliability and strength, but don't expect Willow to become as strong as Gorilla. "It's just the physics of it," said Dr. Dipak Chowdhury, a Corning division vice president and Willow director.

Announced last June, Corning expects to mass produce Willow Glass in the second half of 2013, with commercial products entering the market in early 2014.

 

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