A gem of an idea: sapphire glass for mobile device screens

March 31, 2013

Apple uses sapphire glass to cover the camera lens on its iPhone 5. - AFP picApple uses sapphire glass to cover the camera lens on its iPhone 5. - AFP pic

LONDON, March 31 — The next generation of smartphones could have bullet-proof sapphire glass screens thanks to improved production techniques and falling prices.

One of the many rumours surrounding Google’s upcoming X Phone is that it will feature a sapphire glass display—a specification, which if true, could herald a new technological standard for mobile devices.

At the moment. all premium smartphones have one thing in common.

Regardless of chip sets, RAM or operating system, they all use Gorilla Glass in the display construction as it is the thinnest, strongest and most scratch-resistant material available—it’s a choice that has made its creators, Corning, extremely successful.

However sapphire glass takes things to another level. Used in the construction of bullet-proof windshields and windows, and as a clear coat layer on body armor, it is not only tougher than Gorilla Glass, it is pretty much tougher, stronger and resistant to scratching than anything other than a diamond.

However, its production is expensive and essentially entails creating a synthetic sapphire by heating and cooling aluminum oxide so that it crystallizes.

As a result, a sheet of sapphire glass for a smartphone screen costs 10 times more than its Gorilla Glass equivalent.

Still, according to a story published this month in the MIT Technology Review, production techniques are constantly improving and within 12 months could be cheap enough for some phonemakers to adopt for their products.

Even at today’s prices, Apple uses sapphire glass to cover the camera lens on its iPhone 5 because of its more or less scratch-proof qualities. For the same reason many of the world’s leading horologists use sapphire glass on their flagship watches.

Research from insurance and warranty company Square Trade shows that in the UK alone the combined repair bill for smartphones since 2007 runs to £1.2 billion (RM5.65 billion) and that the most common form of accidental damage comes as a result of a fall from a pocket or from a table.

The cost of replacing and repairing broken screens means that 8 per cent of UK smartphone owners admit to continuing to use their handset even though it has a cracked or broken screen.