As phone makers look for ways to make their devices stand out in the crowd, sapphire shapes up to be the next big thing for protecting our precious devices from accidents and scratches. Of course, Corning, maker of the omnipresent Gorilla Glass, begs to disagree.
To counter the rise of sapphire, Corning is working on a new variety of glass that is very hard to shatter and approaches sapphire in terms of resistance to scratches.
“We told you last year that sapphire was great for scratch performance but didn’t fare well when dropped. So, we created a product that offers the same superior damage resistance and drop performance of Gorilla Glass 4 with scratch resistance that approaches sapphire,” said a company executive at a recent Corning’s investor meeting. The new type of glass is known for now as Project Phire.
Corning gave little details about Project Phire other than to say that it would become available later this year. It’s not clear whether the new glass will be marketed as Gorilla Glass 5 or will be a distinct product line. Corning will definitely need to generate excitement around Phire in order to compete with sapphire, which has become a genuine buzzword in 2014. Another important aspect will be price, though the high costs of sapphire give Corning room to go upscale.
Also known as corundum, synthetic sapphire (like the naturally occurring gem) is extremely resistant to scratches and abrasions. Diamond and moissanite (silicon carbide) are the only naturally occurring minerals that are stronger than sapphire, which has a hardness of 9 on the Mohs scale.
While extremely hard, sapphire is prone to shattering, and it’s also expensive to manufacture, even though prices have been going down over the past years. Even with these drawbacks, phone makers have shown interest in the material. Apple famously invested hundreds of millions in a joint sapphire manufacturing venture that ultimately failed, and sapphire has been used on a handful of niche Android devices like the Kyocera Brigadier or the Magical Mirror X5 from Taiwanese company Desay.
If Corning manages to marry the shock resistance of Gorilla with the sheer hardness of sapphire, it could have a winner. With that said, unbreakable screens remain a dream for now, though design trends favoring anorexic profiles are partly to blame for that – while Gorilla glass becomes stronger with each generation, manufacturers prefer to use ever thinner sheets, keeping overall resistance the same.