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Is sapphire glass the next big thing in mobile devices?

While Apple is already set to use more of sapphire glass in its upcoming devices, Samsung and LG are also exploring the technology.
May 29, 2014
Sapphire Glass

Once again, Apple has proved to be a company that always wants to be at the head of the innovation curve. Arguably, Apple has started several trends that have benefited mobile device consumers. These include the launch of the iPhone and iPad. This also includes changes in manufacturing methodologies and standards, leading to the industry either riding on, or even improving on, the same trend. For instance, machined-aluminum construction used to be an expensive manufacturing process. But with scale and with Apple’s clout, unibody aluminum devices are now commonplace across different brands and platforms.

The same might be the case for sapphire glass, which Apple has recently started utilizing on the camera lens and home button of its latest flagship iPhone 5S. The device’s home button also doubles as the fingerprint sensor.

Sapphire glass benefits

Sapphire Glass GTAT

Not actually glass, per se, manufactured sapphire is crystalline in structure, and is made by applying high heat to purified aluminum oxide.

Apple is reportedly exploring the use of sapphire glass on the entire touchscreen surface, due to the numerous benefits that sapphire offers. For one, it is very hard and offers better scratch resistance than glass. Also, sapphire glass has a wetting angle of 85 degrees, which means it is less prone to fingerprint smudges.

However, the disadvantage at this point is that sapphire glass is expensive to manufacture, and costs about 10 times compared with tempered glass — the technology that Corning uses in its Gorilla Glass.

While Apple currently outsources the manufacture of sapphire glass to GT Advanced Technologies, the company may be looking to manufacturing its own sapphire glass for its own needs. At this point, Apple already has firm dealings with both GTAT and upstream suppliers that will ensure enough supply. According to reports, Apple will be using sapphire glass on 10 million devices that will start shipping in the second half of 2014.

Samsung, LG want sapphire, too

Corning's industry-standard tests indicate that Gorilla Glass is better than sapphire. Should manufacturers then stick with glass?
According to Corning, industry-standard tests indicate that Gorilla Glass is better than sapphire. Should manufacturers then stick with glass?

It’s not only Apple that seeks to get better utilization out of sapphire glass, however. Other leading smartphone manufacturers like Samsung and LG are also reportedly keen on applying sapphire on their upcoming devices. Korean media is reporting that both companies have sought samples from sapphire ingot makers, in an effort to adopt the material on their devices.

This is not the first time Samsung and LG have considered the use of sapphire, as both companies have reportedly sought samples in 2013, as well. However, the cost was still prohibitive. Apple’s push for sapphire glass with its latest flagship may be an indication, however, that the material will see bigger adoption if and once the price of manufacture is pushed down. According to reports, Samsung and LG will likely use sapphire glass on touchscreens if the cost matches that of comparable technologies like Gorilla Glass.

Corning seems to be unfazed, however. James R. Steiner, senior vice president at Corning’s Specialty Materials segment says that sapphire glass is still impractical for applications like smartphone touchscreen surfaces. “In one of our commonly accepted strength tests, sapphire breaks more easily than Gorilla Glass after the same simulated use,” he has said. Also, production requires higher amounts of energy, which might go against the current trends in environmental-friendliness among businesses. “Additionally, sapphire’s cost and environmental hit are huge issues.”

Apple’s tight control over manufacture and supply gives it enough clout to be ahead in this technology, although other big companies like Samsung may also match Apple’s production prowess. Time will tell if sapphire will, indeed, be the next big thing in smartphone screen tech.

Can we expect smudge-free and more durable touchscreens with better touch-sensitivity from Android device makers soon?