By Michal Lev-Ram
February 25, 2008

By Michal Lev-Ram

Want to know what the cell phone of the future will look like? Nokia offered a glimpse Monday when it unveiled its new “Morph” concept phone, a solar-powered, self-cleaning and shape-shifting mobile device.

Based on the company’s research in nanotechnology — the science of building electronics at the subatomic level — the phone will be made out of material that can change into different shapes. In a video illustrating what Morph might someday be able to do, Nokia (NOK) shows the flexible device transforming from a traditional mobile phone with a detachable ear piece to a flat, paper-thin gadget and a wearable watch. It also shows the transparent, green device tapping solar energy, sensing chemical compounds in the air and repelling dirt particles.

According to Tapani Ryhanen, head of Nokia’s multimedia devices research, the company developed the Morph concept in collaboration with the University of Cambridge and has 18 of its own researchers working full-time on nanotechnology-based solutions.

But don’t put off buying a new phone just yet — Ryhanen says a Morph-like device is still at least 11 years away. What’s more, even when it does get out of the lab, it’s not clear exactly what it will look like.

“Our concept device is just to illustrate what this technology could mean, but most likely it is not exactly the device we will develop based on our work,” Ryhanen told Fortune.

Nokia’s not the only phonemaker turning to nanotechnology for future phones. Other companies, including Motorola (MOT), are also looking into the technology to help shape next-generation devices.

“In some way or another, many phone companies are involved in nanomaterials research,” says
Pulickel Ajayan
, a professor of engineering at Rice University and a pioneer in nanotechnology. Ajayan says nanomaterials can enable better screen resolution, increase processing power of memory devices like phones and enhance battery life. “I think that if all of these pieces are put together nanotechnology will be quite significant for mobile devices, as these are the basic components of phones — things like power, display and memory.”

Ajayan says we could see nanotechnology used in phone displays and energy storage in the next two to three years. But you’ll likely have to wait a lot longer for the luxury of turning your phone into a watch simply by placing it on your wrist and locking in its shape.

For now, you can check out the Morph concept phone on display at New York’s Museum of Modern Art on view until May 12 as part of the museum’s “Design and the Elastic Mind” exhibition.

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