The glass touch screen on a smartphone is a great piece of technology - until it hits the floor and cracks. Manufacturers have attempted to solve the breakage problem with different formulations of glass, such as Corning's famous Gorilla Glass. But now there's an alternative: sapphire, the hardest mineral next to diamond.
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Sapphire, like diamonds, can be made artificially. To make sapphire, aluminum oxide is melted down and then allowed to cool and crystallize. When cut into sheets, it works great as a touch screen. So great in fact that several companies are working on how to get the price down. It's about ten times the cost of glass, which currently runs about $3 for a smartphone screen.
Vertu Ti uses sapphire for its screens, which sell for $9,600. (To buy one you have to set up an appointment at one of their boutiques).
New Hampshire-based GT Advanced Technologies is working on bringing the price down. It demonstrated an iPhone 5 with a sapphire screen at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona earlier this month. (Apple already uses it to protect the lens on the camera).
The trick to making sapphire less expensive is finding a way to make sheets of it in large quantities.
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Rubicon Technology in the U.S. has been showcasing its ability to make large sheets, while Monocrystal in Russia says it can make large sapphire windows. Sapphire Technology in South Korea are also all working on getting the costs of sapphire low enough that it cold go on a mass-market phone.
The price could be kept down by making the sheets of sapphire that make up the screen thinner, or using the sapphire to boost the strength of glass by tacking on an ultra-thin layer to an ordinary touch screen.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Daniel Torres via Technology Review