Sapphire beyond the smart watch

Some day in the not-so distant future, our way of interacting with the world around us will be vastly different. Technology that seems like science fiction today – such as glasses with heads-up displays and connected headbands – will be the norm for average people. Desktop computers will be technologically archaic and non-smartphones will simply no longer exist.

3D Display

But before we get too carried away, let’s rewind to the present.

The Apple Watch broke ground for the consumer wearable device segment this year after it was reported last week that over 4.2 million units have been shipped since April 2015. According to research firm Canalys, Apple has easily overtaken more established companies like Fitbit and Xiaomi in just three months.

But while the smartwatch market gradually gains momentum, the augmented reality and wearables industries overall still face many obstacles on the road to success, especially in the form of consumer devices.

Photonics Spectra recently noted three challenges these industries must overcome before wearables can achieve wider consumer interest and, ultimately, adoption.

1)      System cost

2)      Materials

3)      Practical use

With the development of a wearable device, comes the need for a screen material that can put up with the rigors posed by exposure to the environment. Specifically, these devices are generally in more vulnerable locations than a phone. Fortunately, sapphire is a solution that is becoming more obtainable due to new manufacturing techniques.

Although currently more expensive than glass, sapphire’s greater scratch resistance, strength and durability allows products to be thinner, which can be a plus in wearables considering consumers desire their devices to blend in as stylish fashion accessories.

In addition, sapphire manufacturers are continuing to innovate by developing new solutions for the next generation of wearables. One such solution, sapphire coated glass, will give companies the ability to develop screen covers that are not only strong, but can mold to curved devices. These coatings will be directly applied on top of glass and will provide similar durability as sapphire, at a lower cost.

Already prominently used on a variety of mobile and wearable devices, including the Apple Watch, sapphire will likely be used on the screens of many cutting edge gadgets. As production methods continue to improve, the futuristic applications for sapphire are limitless.

Sapphire Industry Watch – April 17

  • Video: The Apple Watch’s sapphire display survives an insane power drill test – BGR: In an effort to prove just how indestructible the sapphire display of the Apple Watch is, iPhonefixed made a video of a purported Apple Watch sapphire display enduring aggressive rubbing against a stone wall and a power drill, amongst other abusive tests. In the end, the Apple Watch display is shown 100 percent intact, surviving without a single scuff or scratch.
  • Check out the light emerging from these Dublin landmarks – thejournal.ie: A team of professors at Trinity College Dublin have estimated that over 2.2. million units of electricity are wasted per year across Ireland in illuminating areas such as public parks and gardens. According to the Dublin City Council, the biggest source of light pollution comes from low pressure sodium light bulbs. To remedy the situation, there is a proposal to replace all of the low pressure sodium lights with LED lights over the next few years.
  • US LED lighting market to reach $5.2bn in 2015, driven by declining LED prices and government initiatives – Semiconductor Today: Continued innovation over the last decade has led to the overall growth of LEDs in the general lighting market. According to TechSci Research, due to continuously declining LED prices, US government initiatives and increasing consumer inclination towards the adoption of green technologies, the US LED lighting market could grow to $5.2bn in 2015.
  • Oklahoma City Hall park to get makeover – The Oklahoman: The park surrounding Oklahoma City Hall is set to undergo a much needed makeover. The main feature of the park, the fountain, which dates back to the opening of City Hall in 1937, will be rebuilt with new nozzles, mechanical systems and LED lighting.

Future Applications of Sapphire

With high quality commercial sapphire now more widely available than ever before, we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to sapphire’s use.

Eventually, we’re going to see doors open for the adoption of what’s been called a “wonder material” in industries like medical equipment and implants, military sensor technologies and a wide array of consumer electronics. In some of these industries, sapphire has already started to make its debut.

Let’s take a look at the top three industries where new applications of sapphire will initially play out.

  • Medical

In the near future, you may carry sapphire inside of you.

Potential uses for sapphire in the medical field are significant. To give but one example, sapphire could be used for joint replacements since it is biocompatible and won’t wear down over time.

That’s great news for the thousands of patients who have to have additional hip replacements seven and a half years after their first one and endure more, often painful, recoveries and increased medical expenses.

Sapphire’s optical properties and durability also offer advantages for specific medical laser applications in dermatology, ophthalmology and dentistry. It’s already widely used in surgical systems for its laser transmission, high resistance to heat, and non-thrombogenic properties (meaning it doesn’t promote clotting). In addition, sapphire products are used for surgical tools, implants and dental braces.

  • Defense and Aerospace

Historically, sapphire has been limited to smaller applications, like LED chips and components for smartphones. Going forward, sapphire manufacturers will find ways to grow sapphire to fit applications with larger size requirements, including uses in defense and aerospace.

For instance, with advancements in military sensor technology, there is an increased demand for large, thick, optical windows that can withstand harsh environments and protect sensors—a perfect application for sapphire.

Through a contract with the Air Force Research Laboratory, Rubicon has developed an entirely new sapphire crystal growth platform capable of growing windows of optical quality sapphire as thick as 14 x 20 x 1.5 inches. This new growth platform will allow Rubicon to grow panels up to two inches thick, which is larger than other large-area growth technologies can generate.

  • Consumer Electronics

While phone manufacturers, like Vertu and Kyocera, already have sapphire faceplates, larger manufacturers could propel the material into the mainstream.

If consumers like sapphire smartphone screens, we’re going to quickly see other device manufacturers follow suit. For example, Apple recently announced the Apple Watch will come equipped with a sapphire Retina display. Second only to diamond in hardness, sapphire will likely enable Apple Watch wearers to drop their watch without damaging the device.

With increased demand for sapphire and improved and more affordable production, we are only grazing the surface of sapphire’s potential use and – one thing is for certain – sapphire will begin to play a much larger role in our day-to-day lives.