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Unbreakable - The Indestructible Smartphone Display of the Future

By James Lu - on 10 Jun 2013, 9:50am

That moment: juggling a polystyrene coffee cup in one hand, fumbling for loose change with the other and, somewhere in-between deciding if balancing your thousand dollar smartphone on the back of your hand is a good idea, and realizing it’s not, time seems to slow as your precious makes a painful, inexorable swan dive towards the hard, unforgiving reality of the floor – one last hope of cushioning the blow with your foot? …and no, you’ve just drop-kicked your little darling halfway across the room.

This is what a $300 cup of coffee looks like.

According to online insurance and warranty company Square Trade, America has spent nearly US$6 billion dollars on iPhone repairs alone in the past five years. And the number one cause of phone repair? Broken screens from a drop off a pocket or a table. In fact, repairing a broken phone can be so expensive; nearly 11% of all iPhone users use phones with cracked screens.

Fortunately, those torn up days may soon be behind us. Sapphire, the hardest natural substance after diamond, already used in bullet-proof glass and watches, may soon be finding its way to the latest smartphone screens.

Sapphires are the crystalline form of aluminum oxide, and are relatively easy to manufacture in a synthetic form. It’s incredibly tough, shatterproof, scratchproof (diamond-tipped saws are required to cut them), it has a melting point of 2030 degrees Celsius, is impermeable and impervious to caustic chemicals, and looks indistinguishable from regular glass (you may think of Sapphires as traditionally being blue in color, but the distinctive color is actually due to certain impurities found in natural sapphires; synthetic sapphires can be made completely colorless). 

In short, sapphire crystal makes an almost perfect smartphone screen. There’s only one caveat; right now, one sheet of Corning’s Gorilla Glass costs around US$4. The same sized sheet of sapphire crystal? About US$40.

But hope is on the horizon. At MWC 2013, GT Advanced Technologies, a specialist in polysilicon production technology, showcased an iPhone retrofitted with a sapphire crystal screen. The secret? It utilized extremely thin and cost effective sheets of sapphire laminated onto a cheaper material.

In fact, the company is so confident that it has cracked the key to mass-producing affordable sapphire crystal that it acquired the Ion Cannon technology previously used in the manufacture of ultrathin sheets of silicon for solar cell production. With it, they can apparently produce sheets of sapphire crystal thinner than a human hair. If what they say is true, you'll soon be able to experience all the benefits of unbreakable and unscratchable sapphire crystal, but at a fraction of the cost.

The question now is, when can we expect sapphire crystal to become the norm for all smartphone displays? That horizon may not actually be too distant. Apple is already using sapphire crystal to protect the rear camera lens on its iPhone 5, and if leaked specs can be believed, Motorola’s upcoming X Phone might be the first mass market smartphone to boast a full sapphire crystal display. When that happens, you can drop-kick your phone all you want.

James Lu

James Lu / Former Associate Editor

Don't be fooled by specs, nobody needs an 18000 DPI gaming mouse.