Smartphone Screens Made Of Sapphire Could Be Around The Corner
March 22, 2013

Smartphone Screens Made Of Sapphire Could Be Around The Corner

Michael Harper for — Your Universe Online

The display market has been cranking out some impressive smartphone screens as of late. Samsung´s latest Galaxy S display packs 441 tiny pixels into every square inch. HTC´s latest, One, has a pixel density of 468 pixels per inch (ppi) and both of these phones soundly trump the 326 ppi of Apple´s Retina display. These displays are delivering brighter and crisper images, all in a relatively small size. They´re powerful, but not impervious to common human clumsiness.

According to an MIT Technology Review report, some smartphone manufacturers may one day use sapphire in their displays instead of glass. It´s expensive now, but the material can take a beating. This means a display made with the material likely wouldn´t spiderweb crack after a tiny tumble from five feet high.

Apple already uses sapphire, of course, to protect the lens of their popular iSight camera.

Though the idea of a sapphire-covered smartphone sounds wonderful, the MIT Technology Review is short on any absolute details, saying only that this could one day be a possibility. As it stands, the material is far too expensive to be used on millions of smartphones.

Apple, Samsung and others use Gorilla Glass from Corning in their displays, and while this type of glass is incredibly durable and scratch resistant, it pales in comparison to sapphire.

As a crystalline form of aluminum oxide, sapphire is harder than any other natural material except diamond. Therefore, it´s three times more scratch resistant than Gorilla Glass and three times stronger.

Yet Corning's Gorilla Glass is relatively cheap for a fairly durable material.

According to the MIT piece, a display made of Corning´s glass costs less than $3. A piece of super durable sapphire costs about $30.

Eric Virey, an analyst with Yole Development believes manufactured sapphire could one day be developed at a cheaper price, bringing the cost down for display makers. Though Gorilla Glass remains to be a proven material, Virey believes smartphone makers will switch when they´re able to buy sapphire displays for under $20.

“I´m convinced that some will start testing the water and release some high-end smartphones using sapphire in 2013,” Virey said.

Competition and new manufacturing processes could help bring this cost down, and one company is already looking at new ways to get sapphire into smartphones.

GT Advanced Technologies in Nashua, New Hampshire, is working on a method to laminate a thin layer of sapphire on top of an existing piece of glass. This would lend some of the benefits of a sapphire display at a cheaper price.

To make this sapphire, GT melts aluminum oxide in special furnaces of their own design. The oxide is then allowed to slowly cool and form a crystal. This crystal is then cut into thin sheets using diamond-coated wire. GT has designed these furnaces to be cheaply and easily upgraded to increase production and make even larger crystals.

GT is understandably bullish on when they think sapphire could be readily available to the market, telling the MIT Technology Review that they´ll be able to get prices around the $12 range.

Sapphire remains much more expensive than Corning, but it´s a cost which GT believes is worth the benefits.

“A broken phone screen can be very expensive,” according to a statement on the GT Website. A sapphire screen may all but eliminate cracked screens.