Apple is reportedly making major changes in its move from the iPhone 5s / 5c to the iPhone 6. While the most noticeable change may be the offering of larger 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch screen sizes, it may be the material that those screens are made of that give the new devices the technological break-through hook that has been missing from the last couple of iPhone releases.
Forbes recently talked with Professor Neil Alford, head of the Department of Material at Imperial College London, whom Apple consulted with about using different materials in future devices. His suggestion was to use “corundum,” an artificially created crystal aluminum oxide compound that is the same as sapphire, but without the blue tint.
The reason behind the suggestion is because it’s incredibly hard to break and nearly impossible to scratch.
“It is very hard,” Alford explained. “On the Mohs scale of mineral hardness corundum is a 9 and the scale runs from 1 to 10. 1 is talc, quartz [the core mineral in glass] is 7, corundum is 9 and diamond is hardest at 10.”
The iPhone 6 wouldn’t be the first time that a sapphire crystal display has been used for a smartphone. As Alford noted, the Nokia Vertu line of luxury phones also uses the material but these are phones made with the concept that, “If you can spend $20,000 on a watch, why not a mobile phone?” That’s obviously that’s not going to fly with a mass market product like the iPhone, so will Apple be able to keep the manufacturing cost manufacturing down?
“The process for making sapphire is more expensive because the material has to be melted at a much higher temperature (2027 degrees C / 3761 degrees F) than Quartz (1670 degrees C / 3038 degrees F). For glass you just chuck it onto molten tin and it comes out flat, there is no worrying about crystallising. When making sapphire the purity has to be pretty high and it is tougher to crystallise,” Alford explained.
“But if you can do this process on an economy of scale then the costs [of making sapphire] can be competitive. It is actually a commodity material. When people think of blue gemstones and natural sapphire that is rare, but commercial artificially made sapphire is not.”
How Apple makes the screen can also lead to cost reductions. Use a mix of conundrum plus other materials can save money, but it hasn’t been announced whether the company will go with a “pure” screen or a mix.
Apple is betting big with the iPhone 6 and has asked its manufacturing partners to produce between 70 million and 80 million phones through the end of 2014. That would appear to solve the economy of scales problem mentioned by Alford when producing a synthetic sapphire crystal screen.
Just as importantly, it will help the smartphone’s “Wow” factor with consumers tired of dealing with scratched, cracked and shattered screens with their older iPhones or competing Android phones. This is especially true when combined with the new screen sizes and other rumored features such as the improved camera, increased batter capacity, faster processor and rounded body.
[Image and video via Marquees Brownlee]