Tough luck … the glass that will stop your phone cracking up

1 Oct 2015

Don’t you just hate it when you drop your smartphone and the glass cracks, or when the screen is scratched right through the middle by your car keys?

Having to squint through a spider-web of cracked glass makes it impossible to read text messages or set up selfies properly.

Unfortunately, it is an annoying hazard of our always-connected, smartphone-obsessed lives.

Thankfully, it may soon be a thing of the past – or at least, far less likely – thanks to an amazing new material, synthetic sapphire glass.

Sapphire is one of the hardest materials on Earth, ranking 9 out of 10 on the Mohs scale of hardness, beaten only by diamond, which is the perfect 10, and moissanite (naturally occurring silicon carbide), which rates 9.5. Those are the only two materials capable of scratching sapphire.

Because natural sapphires are hard to find, people have been making synthetic sapphire for more than a hundred years. Sapphire glass – called “glass” because it’s transparent, not because it’s glass – is made from artificial sapphire. It has long been used as a cover for luxury watches but in October 2013, Apple started to use sapphire glass to cover the cameras and fingerprint sensors of new iPhones. Apple is also using sapphire glass on its Apple Watches.

Apple is not the only device-maker looking at sapphire glass: Huawei and Kyocera have also used the product. But interest is on the rise.

The vast bulk of the 500 million smartphones that are sold globally every year have screens made of very high-end glass: the thin, super-tough, light- and damage-resistant Gorilla Glass made by US giant Corning.

Corning is into its fourth generation of Gorilla Glass – but sapphire glass is the new kid on the block.

The smartphone makers are blown away by test results showing how tough sapphire glass is, both in resistance to scratches and fracture toughness. It is much tougher than Gorilla Glass – almost four times tougher in terms of fracture toughness. It’s also harder, denser, more elastic, and heavier.

It’s also more expensive and takes longer to make. But greater manufacturing scale can change this.

What will be critical in the future use of sapphire glass will be the supply of the major raw material, high-purity alumina (HPA).

At the moment, most HPA is used in LED (light-emitting diode) lighting, a semiconductor device that converts electricity into light. It’s also used in other kinds of semiconductors, plasma displays in TVs and computer screens, as well as other applications. But wider use of sapphire glass could be the development that pushes worldwide demand for HPA into the stratosphere.

And that’s where we come in with our wholly owned deposit of alumina-rich kaolin clay in Western Australia. Using off-the shelf processes, we will turn that clay into 99.99% pure HPA in a 4,000 tonnes a year operation at our plant in Malaysia. 

We expect to start building the plant next year and to have the first sapphire glass in 2017.

·      Video: Watch what happens when a power drill attacks an Apple Watch. Click here

·      Read what equity analysts say about us. Click here