For centuries mankind has enjoyed brilliant blue sapphire gemstones. Now scientists have learned to grow transparent sapphires and could soon use the lab-made stones to form smartphone screens.
Sapphire is the world's second hardest material, and is tougher than even the strongest Gorilla Glass. Sapphire's crystalline structure is formed of a network of aluminum and oxygen atoms in a 2-to-3 ratio.
In a new report by the MIT Review, it is suggested that screens of the hard synthetic crystal could soon hit the market, improving the rigidity (drop resistance) and screen integrity (scratch resistance) of smartphones. The report suggests that a sapphire screen would currently cost $30 USD/unit, versus $3 USD/unit for a Gorilla Glass screen.
That cost would make a sapphire screen to expensive for all but the most premium of flagship smartphones. It's clear why Corning Inc.'s (GLW) Gorilla Glass has dominated sales to date, selling over 1 billion units. However, given that sapphire is three times as hard as Gorilla Glass, the MIT Review report argues that some OEMs may feel compelled to make the switch.
Currently a few OEMs -- including Apple use smaller sheets of sapphire glass as a cover to their smartphone camera lenses.
Eric Virey, an analyst for the French market research firm Yole Développement, said in an interview that the cost of sapphire screens could eventually drop to $20 USD/unit. He comments, "I'm convinced that some (manufacturers) will start testing the water and release some high-end smartphones using sapphire in 2013."
Corning spokesman Daniel Collins responded to the report, saying he is not convinced that sapphire units will be able to cannibalize the market for his company's product, nor compromise its growth. He comments, "It is unclear to us if this could provide better overall performance than actual glass. There also are the questions about cost and product weight that must be addressed before sapphire would be a serious consideration for mass market applications."
The latest Gorilla Glass, Gorilla Glass 3, is twice as hard as its predecessor (Gorilla Glass 2).
Ultimately the two technologies may coexist in some smartphones, though. GT Advanced Technologies a New Hampshire device startup, is aiming to produce a clear sapphire layer for smartphone and tablet that's as thick as a human hair (~0.1 mm), which would be added a strengthener/supplement to the currently used Gorilla Glass. Synthetic glass and sapphire may soon be vying for market dominance, but ultimately they may do their best work as a team.