Do candles hold the cure for touch-screen smudges?

Leave it to those clever Germans to finally figure out a way to keep smudges off of our tablets, smart phones and touch screens. Their idea may not quite be ready for prime time, but it’s getting pretty close.

Researchers at the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft labs think that simple candle soot may be the answer to a growing problem, as more and more devices use touch-screen technology. I find it pretty ironic that a very old technology — it doesn’t get much older than candles — can be used to conquer a very modern problem.

Anyone who burns a lot of candles probably knows that they give off more than just light and heat. Back in college I had a witchy girlfriend who burned lots and lots of candles all the time.

One morning when some sunlight was accidentally allowed inside, I noticed that the walls of her room, especially near the top, were coated with a covering of wax and soot, presumably the byproduct of all the candle burning, since I know she wasn’t rubbing them into her ceiling. I didn’t give it much thought at the time, but apparently, it could end up solving a lot of smudge-related ills.

Fast forward to today. In almost every review we’ve ever done of tablets and smart phones, one complaint is the amount of fingerprint smudge they all seem to collect. Whip out your smart phone right now and take a look. I guarantee you will see smudging. And every anti-smudge coating we’ve ever experienced has been less than adequate.

It’s not like our hands are dirty. It’s actually the natural oil on your fingers that smudges the screen.  

What the researchers figured out is that the soot and residue associated with a burning candle is a perfect barrier to both water and oil. And it doesn’t affect the touch properties of most screens.

Of course, there are some drawbacks. Coating your new iPad or Android with soot isn’t really practical. It’s dirty, and depending on the quality of the soot, can actually be a lot worse than fingerprint smudge. But the scientists are working on that, figuring out a way to put a polymer residue around the soot to hold it in place, and baking the wax under controlled conditions to produce a very clean and clear residue.

I’m a little bit worried that the polymer covering will simply form yet another type of failed anti-smudge coating itself. It needs to hold the soot in place but not actually cover it, which can’t be an easy thing. But if it works out, it could be a billion-dollar idea with so many touch screens in need of protection.

Until then, light ’em if you got ’em. We’ll have to coat our tablets with candle soot the hard way. In my experience, the candle soot application process works best when combined with liberal amounts of cheap wine and a soundtrack by Pink Floyd.

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Reader Comments

Thu, Feb 2, 2012

My solution is the front of my shirt: if the whole screen is coated evenly with smudge (finger prints) and it all gets wiped one direction it looks intentional. Well alright not the best. Several wipes can remove it altogether, but the shirt suffers. Great article by the way.

Thu, Feb 2, 2012 SusanF Austin, TX

If soot works for this, I wonder if a nano-thin layer of carbon (think opened up carbon tube to make a sheet; it's available tech) would do the same thing? I was thinking in terms of carbon black, but discover on further research that it has a much higher percentage of elemental carbon (97%) than soot (typically less than 60%, with a high ash content) [source: www.carbon-black.org/what_is.html]. So further research took me to graphene, which is a one-atom-thick planar sheet of carbon, as mentioned by "earth" (though misspelled), pure carbon in the form I read about, though the oxide exists as well. [Grapheme is a unit of written language.]

Thu, Feb 2, 2012

Careful with that ax, Eugene

Thu, Feb 2, 2012 earth

I hope your ex girlfriend didn’t die of black lung. Evidently the best present for a witch is an electrostatic air cleaner, preferably plugged in just over the alter.

I suspect a grapheme oxide paper, suitably thin to be transparent and one side treated appropriately might work. http://www.technologyreview.com/computing/19097

There is hope that this paper could be “printed” into a multilayer flexible circuit board with built in field effect transistors and organic leds for flexible displays, touch screen and who knows what else. Double bubble, toil and trouble, fire burn and caldren bubble. Collecting graphine from the air filter over the candle. Profit.

Thu, Feb 2, 2012 Rob

And she lit up that candle, and showed me the way... Wait, that's The Eagles.

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