New Applications for Sapphire: Aerospace & Defense, Part 1 of 3

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Range of sapphire products available from Rubicon Technology including large optical windows and other shapes for aerospace and defense.

Sapphire’s unique properties make it a perfect material for high-performance applications due to its optical transparency, physical strength, resistance to abrasion and corrosion, temperature durability, chemical inertness, and bio-compatibility. As a result, it is perfectly suited for extreme environments where material durability is just as important as optical clarity.

One extreme use case is in the aerospace and defense industry where there’s a need for rugged windows for targeting pods and missile domes, most notably for the US F-35 fighter jet, that may come in contact with harsh conditions from the harsh, gritty desert with extremely high temperatures to high altitudes with extreme low temperatures.

Market research firm Yole Developpement determined that non-substrate applications for sapphire in the defense, semiconductor and other applications represent 25% of the sapphire industry revenue in a new study.  The market represents a solid growth opportunity for sapphire makers.

While there is opportunity, innovation is needed.  Sapphire traditionally has been limited to smaller shapes and sizes using traditional growth methods.  As sensor technology and applications, in defense and aerospace in particular, have evolved, the size requirements for sapphire windows have grown substantially.  One company that is innovating sapphire crystal growth is Rubicon Technology.

In a recent paper, Rubicon’s Dr. Jonathan Levine, Director of Technical Business Development, detailed how Rubicon successfully produced very large sapphire blanks using a highly modified horizontal directional solidification process. This new method, named the Large‐Area Netshape Crystal Extraction (LANCE) system is currently able to produce crystals of several different orientations. The company plans to produce sapphire windows as large as 36 x 18 x 0.8 inches.

For Further Reading Blog, Opportunities for Sapphire: New Applications & Markets Explained, Blog, How Large Can You Go? Sapphire Windows Grow Up and Across,

Rubicon Technology, Synthesis and characterization of large optical-grade sapphire windows produced from a horizontal growth process,

Made in America – Sapphire for the High Growth LED Market

While Google made a splash recently about making the Nexus Q media player in the US, companies all over the US are making key contributions of the economy by manufacturing in America.  One of the key building blocks for LEDs is sapphire.  Much like silicon is used for computer chips, sapphire is the foundation for an LED chip.  Illinois-based Rubicon Technology is one of the world’s leading producers of sapphire ingots, blanks, polished substrates and windows. With more than 80% of the world’s LEDs based on sapphire, Rubicon makes a very important contribution to the market right here in the US.

Rubicon grows large sapphire crystals in sapphire furnaces in its Franklin Park, Batavia and Bensenville, Illinois-crystal growth facilities.  The company makes very large sapphire crystals – bulk crystal ranging in size from 30 kg to 85 kg to 200 kg – that are cored and shipped to a Rubicon finishing facility in Malaysia or to directly to finishing customers throughout Asia to make sapphire wafers that and then made into millions of little LED chips.  These LED chips are found in everything from smartphones, laptops and tablets, HDTVs, big ad displays, street lights, commercial lighting and even new LED light bulbs.

Why manufacture the sapphire crystals in the US?  According to Rubicon, the crystal growth process is a high precision process that uses energy that must be kept constant. Any deviation in the power during the crystal growth process can lead to imperfections in a crystal rendering that crystal unusable.

Based on a decade of Rubicon company experience and decades of semiconductor expertise, Rubicon has custom-built next-generation crystal growth furnaces for their US plants. Rubicon’s innovations have resulted in industry-leading large-diameter sapphire wafers – six inches or more in size versus the commonly made two, three and four inch wafers – that help bring LED chip manufacturers cost efficiencies they can’t achieve with smaller wafers.  To date, Rubicon has shipped 230,000 large diameter wafers.

“No other country in the world has reliable, low cost utilities like the US,” said William Weissman, CFO for Rubicon.  “We specifically have designed our crystal growth facilities around reliable resources for power and water.  The location in the US also allows us to protect our intellectual property inherent in our furnaces and processes in a way that cannot be maintained outside of the country.”

LED Lighting & the Road to Success

Space on store shelves for lighting is filled with LED and CFL bulbs.

Management consulting firm McKinsey & Company says that the global LED lighting market will grow 34% from 2010 to 2016 (CAGR).  The researchers expect the LED lighting market to grow to almost $94 billion US by 2020, representing close to 60% of the total lighting market.  Market penetration of LEDs in general lighting (also known as solid state lighting) is about seven percent In Asia, North America and Europe, but is expected to expand to around 70% by 2020.

Government subsidies and regulation worldwide have promoted alternatives to incandescent lighting to save energy.  Recently, enforcement efforts to promote alternative lighting took a slight turn, but it may not matter.  That horse may have left the barn as other governments around the world are moving ahead with their regulations and incentives

During the first week in June, Republicans in the US House adopted a provision designed to give Thomas Edison’s invention a little more life.  Language in the provision blocks enforcement of the new energy standard for lighting.  The first phase of the standard, passed as part of Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, has been challenged by members of Congress connected to the Tea Party. In a Bloomberg story, Michael Burgess, a Texas Republican that sponsored the light bulb amendment said, “People are sick of the government treading where it just doesn’t belong.” The US Senate has yet to vote on the measure.

Despite the politics and regulations, the allure of saving money may be enough to propel the LED light bulb to success in the US. LED light bulbs have made significant progress in the manufacturing community.  Many manufacturers have already retooled and transitioned to make the next generation light bulbs.  The North American market for suppliers of LED lamps is estimated to be about $55 million, and projected to grow by about 32% per year between 2012 and 2016, said Konkana Khaund, building technologies research manager at the consulting firm Frost & Sullivan.

Solid state lighting is gaining ground around the world simply based on the economics of energy savings and low maintenance costs.


LEDs Magazine, Lighting market report predicts strong growth for LED lighting,

Bloomberg News, House Adopts Measure to Halt Light-Bulb Efficiency Law,

US DOE Reports on Efficiency and Environmental Impact of LED Lighting

LED lighting has been hyped as the next best thing in lighting because of its energy efficiency. As Earth Day 2012 approaches, we would like to share the results of a new report from the US DOE, Life-Cycle Assessment of Energy and Environmental Impacts of LED Lighting Products Part I: Review of the Life-Cycle Energy Consumption of Incandescent, Compact Fluorescent, and LED Lamps, February 2012.

Part 1 of the report focuses on a comparison of the energy consumption during the lifecycle of LEDs, CFLs, halogen and Incandescent light bulbs. The lifecycle is defined as the three major lifecycle phases: manufacturing, transportation and use.  The authors of the report took on a lot of work. The report is a comprehensive look at the energy consumption of the three light technologies based on ten existing studies from academia, manufacturers and independent researchers.

The results of the report were not surprising given the buzz about LEDs.  The use phase is the most energy intensive for all — incandescent, CFLs and LED lighting.  Transportation accounted for less than one percent of the lifecycle for all. The real differences occurred during the manufacturing phase with LEDs initially being higher due to the larger “packages” required to meet the equivalent lumens, or the amount of light.  These differences in the manufacturing phase will be eliminated by advances in LEDs over time.  For example, as LED technology improves with increases in yield, wafer size and automation in LED manufacturing, LEDs will become brighter requiring fewer, smaller “packages” to make the same amount of light, lumens.  Even given these initial differences in current LEDs, they all disappeared when totaling everything up throughout the lifecycle.

According to the authors of the report, “the key results of this analysis indicate that the average life-cycle energy consumption of LED lamps and CFLs are similar, at approximately 3,900 MJ per functional unit (20 million lumen-hours). This is about one quarter of the incandescent lamp energy consumption—15,100 MJ per functional unit.”  Further, the authors estimate that, “by 2015, if LED lamps meet their performance targets, their life-cycle energy use is expected to decrease by approximately one half.” This means that as LEDs become more efficient, they’ll outshine CFLs.

This all sounds like very good news for LEDs, but it still is very early. The report is the first report from a larger DOE project to assess the lifecycle environmental and resource costs to manufacture, use and dispose of LED lighting products versus comparable traditional lighting technologies.  Look for more from the DOE.

For Further Reading:, LED Manufacturing,

US DOE, SSL Program,

LEDs Break into Fashion and Wearable Tech

ABC's Modern Family featured LED wedding fashions this season.

Who says we can’t all dress like stars?  The Hollywood kind AND the light up kind in the sky.  While Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and other stars have been dressing with custom-made LED-studded gowns and costumes, designers are finally beginning to integrate wearable LEDs into ready-to-wear fashion.  Anne Eisenberg recently wrote an article in The New York Times about how designers are beginning to offer LEDs integrated into t-shirts, coats, handbags and jewelry.

Using conductive thread, sensors, batteries and small microprocessors, designers are bringing light to their designs.  According to Eisenberg, the German fashion label Moon Berlin recently opened an online shop that sells chiffon dresses and accessories like brooches with white LEDs.  The label plans on selling men’s dinner jackets with LEDs soon.  That’s sure to brighten up a prom like a recent episode of Modern Family where everyone in a wedding was dressed in LED-studded wedding attire.

While they may look cool, the wearable LEDs integrated with tiny computers may bring new functionality to clothing. Eisenberg mentioned that a tech company, Adafruit, is now working on wearable computers based on their Flora platform.  Using a Flora kit, you can make a handbag that includes a special GPS senor linked to an LED display.  This will eliminate the need to take out your cell phone or GPS device for directions.  The company is also offering apps for iPads, iPhones and Android devices that can link up to t-shirts that include LEDs that would glow red for poor air quality and with a Bluetooth connection tweet the information to other joggers.

For Further Reading:

The New York Times, Which Way to the Ball I’ll Ask My Gown,

Moon Berlin,

Modern Family,

Earnings Season — Canaccord Genuity says sapphire market shows signs of stabilizing

It is earnings season and LED and sapphire related companies continue to struggle due to the slow economic recovery and oversupply of sapphire. One financial analyst sees light at the end of the tunnel.  In observation of Rubicon Technology (Nasdaq: RBCN) earnings last week, Canaccord Genuity’s Jed Dorsheimer found some positive signs for Rubicon and the sapphire industry.

According to Dorsheimer, “the sapphire industry is actually showing signs of stabilizing. While we do not expect much in the way of price increases again, we note that Rubicon is one of the low-cost providers in the industry. With this in mind, we feel that when the industry turns and inventory is worked down the increasing utilization should return a good amount of leverage and income to the model.”

Rubicon is already showing signs of recovery of the sapphire market with orders for two through four inch cores increasing in the first quarter.  “We have continued to maintain high utilization of our crystal growth facilities throughout this slowdown because we are confident that demand will be strong in the second half of 2012,” commented Raja Parvez, Rubicon CEO and president, in the company’s earnings news release.

For Further Reading:  Large Diameter Sapphire Supports LED Market Growth


Barriers to Entry 1: China’s Appetite for MOCVD Reactors & How Easy Is It to Make Sapphire?

Questions about the barriers to entry and new market entrants from China have been dogging the LED industry.  A few industry experts have been taking a look at China and what it means to the industry.  Strategies Unlimited analyst Tom Hausken recently wrote a piece for LEDs Magazine about the Chinese LED manufacturing industry. China has been throwing a lot of capital at its nascent LED industry and the world is watching.  Tom’s article put some of the talk about the Chinese LED industry into perspective.

According to Hausken, research on the Chinese LED industry by Strategies Unlimited partner GG-LED shows that the Chinese effort goes far beyond MOCVD equipment.  The report further calls into question whether the Chinese can match world-class competitors.  “The report points out that the real shortage in expertise is not only designing LEDs and operating epitaxy reactors in general research, but particularly in planning and leading enterprises that can match world-class competitors,” wrote Hausken.

According to the report, Chinese investment is overly concentrated in LED epitaxy and chip production due to an outdated perception that the distribution of profit margins in the supply chain were concentrated at the epitaxy and chip layer. 

Only time will tell if the Chinese LED industry can get up to speed and become competitive on the world stage.  Hausken commented, “There is over-investment in LED manufacturing in China, but what will be the impact? At the very least, it makes the market less certain. A glut will accelerate the trend toward cheaper LEDs and LED lighting, which has been a goal of national policy makers. It may hurt chip makers and vendors of fab equipment along the way,if only by spoiling an otherwise rational market.”

Look for Part 2, Barriers to Entry 2 in a future post.

For Further Reading:  LEDs Magazine