For Apple fans dreaming of sapphire iPhones, Liquidmetal could be a cautionary tale

Posted:
in General Discussion edited July 2014
Apple certainly likes to keep its competition -- and fans --?guessing about its next moves, and one of the company's best head-fakes in recent years was an exclusive arrangement for a unique metal alloy dubbed Liquidmetal. News of that deal sparked fantasies of mythical Liquidmetal products built by Apple -- wishful thinking that may now be repeating once again with the company's latest investment in sapphire.

Touch ID

Liquidmetal hype melts

AppleInsider was first to discover back in 2010 that Apple had entered into a $20 million exclusive agreement to use amorphous metal alloys with unique atomic structures that could make products thinner, lighter, and resistant to wear and corrosion. The commercial name of this product was Liquidmetal, and the possibilities sent Apple fans into a frenzy.

As a result, for the last four years silly rumors about Apple products made entirely of Liquidmetal have continued to appear. The claims have ranged from objects as small as an iPhone, all the way to a full Liquidmetal MacBook Pro. To date, some rumors still suggest the next iPad Air or the rumored "iWatch" will feature Liquidmetal chassis.

In reality, Liquidmetal has been too unique and too expensive to produce in such large quantities. It's also difficult to work with.



The inventor of the material himself noted that it would take an investment of hundreds of millions of dollars, in addition to years of time, before Apple could utilize Liquidmetal in large-scale products. In 2012, Dr. Atakan Peker foresaw Apple using the material for small operational parts such as hinges and brackets.

Apple tested the viability of Liquidmetal by using it to make the SIM ejector tool included with the iPhone 3GS, but that's the largest known use for the material thus far. If Apple is using Liquidmetal on a large scale, it's doing so in ways that no one has yet to discover.

Enter sapphire

Apple's sapphire deal has inspired speculation, but the reason for the deal may already be under our fingertips.
Unlike Liquidmetal, we actually know that Apple has shipped tens of millions of devices to date featuring sapphire, a scratch-resistant glass replacement. The tiny home button on the company's flagship iPhone 5s is made of sapphire, in order to ensure continued use of the Touch ID fingerprint sensor.

In addition, the even smaller camera lens cover on the back of both the iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c is crafted from sapphire crystal, ensuring that potential scratches won't ruin a user's smartphone camera.

The iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c had already been in customers' hands for over a month when sapphire maker GT Advanced Technologies announced a $578 million contract with Apple to supply the material to the company.

Unsurprisingly, this news once again got fans -- and the rumor mill -- excited about entire iPhone and iPad displays made out of the wondrous material that is sapphire.

Sapphire certainly has its advantages, as evidenced by its use in the small iPhone 5s home button. But if Apple were truly planning to build entire iPhone and iPad displays out of sapphire -- this year, no less -- it would need to overcome a number of considerable hurdles.

Sapphire problems

Corning is currently the worldwide leader in scratch- and crack-resistant glass manufacturing. The company declined to provide comment to AppleInsider for this story, but it already issued a public preemptive strike against sapphire hype back in May of 2013.

In that statement, Corning admitted that sapphire is harder to scratch than its own Gorilla Glass, but also noted that sapphire is 67 percent heavier than its product. Considering how Apple continuously strives to make its products thinner and lighter, that doesn't sound like a material that the company would embrace.

Corning also highlighted the financial issues associated with producing sapphire, estimating that it costs 10 times more to produce than its own glass.

And its own durability tests suggest that in normal mobile phone use, in which the material must cover a much larger area than an iPhone home button, sapphire breaks more easily than Gorilla Glass.

Antimicrobial Gorilla Glass


An executive from the company again panned sapphire as heavy and expensive, and also environmentally unfriendly, in statements made this March. Corning's Tony Tripeny noted that it takes about 100 times more energy to generate a sapphire crystal than it does glass, while the material also transmits less light, which could lead to dimmer screens or shorter battery life.

Of course, Corning has a dog in this fight, and panning sapphire is in the company's best interest as it looks to maintain the dominance of Gorilla Glass in the smartphone and tablet space. But there is one company that has been shipping smartphones with sapphire glass for years: Vertu, a maker of luxury mobile phones that can cost upwards of $10,000.

'Sapphire crystal has its own unique set of problems'

AppleInsider spoke with Hutch Hutchison, head of design and concept creation at Vertu, about the benefits of and problems associated with working with sapphire.

Vertu is no stranger to premium materials, having famously crafted solid gold smartphones, and using materials like titanium, leather and alligator skin. The company began using solid sapphire crystal screens when it launched its first luxury mobile phone, the Signature, nearly 15 years ago.




Hutchison explained that Vertu uses an incredibly slow process known as "edge framed growth" to produce sapphire for its modern smartphones. It takes several days to produce the material, but he said this is the only way to ensure it is free from defects and stresses.

"Sapphire crystal screens are not easy to work with, but we believe that the customer benefits make our efforts worthwhile," he said. "In addition to the strength and scratch resistance, the clarity of sapphire crystal is also amazing."

Vertu is now working with what it calls fifth-generation solid sapphire screen technology, available on the company's Constellation smartphone, which sells for $6,630. The company boasts that the Constellation's sapphire display is "virtually impossible" to scratch, and that the material is second only to diamond in its hardness.

Of course, as Corning also noted, sapphire isn't some sort of magical material that solves the problems of glass without consequences. Vertu is well-versed in these issues.

"As with any high-tech material, sapphire crystal has its own unique set of problems," Hutchison told AppleInsider. "It is slow, expensive and energy intensive to produce. It can take two weeks to grow each boules and the yield from each is low. It is also very difficult to cut, grind and polish; diamond tools have to be used for all of these processes."

And that's just when growing and cutting sapphire. After that, the crystals need to be "expertly managed" to ensure its durability and optical quality, he said.




Sapphire supporters believe that Apple and GT Advanced may have found some sort of breakthrough that would allow Apple to build entire iPhone and iPad displays made of the material this year, and keep up with massive consumer demand for those products.

Hutchison, however, isn't convinced that the material is ready for mass-production in general consumer devices. On that subject, he referenced titanium --?a material Apple famously used in its first in its first PowerBook G4 models, but quickly abandoned after the material presented a number of issues, most notoriously a problem where the notebook display's hinges would break.

"Titanium, for example, has also been around for many years, is stronger and lighter in weight than aluminum -- it comes with a myriad of advantages for mobile phones," he said. "However, it remains expensive, difficult to work with and therefore, rarely seen outside of the luxury industry. Sapphire crystal screens could break through to the mainstream or, like titanium, remain the preserve of only high-end luxury products. Right now, it is too early to say."

So why spend $578M on GT Advanced?

Outside of iPhone and iPad displays, sapphire supporters believe Apple could use the scratch-resistant material on its rumored "iWatch." While that does seem to be a more likely scenario in 2014 than sapphire-covered iPads, the truth is no one outside of Apple's secret labs has seen a so-called "iWatch," so it's hard to place much stock in a mythical product.

Instead, the answer to Apple's half-billion dollar question may already be beneath our iPhone-unlocking fingertips: Touch ID.

Mesa
Apple-GT Advanced sapphire manufacturing plant in Arizona.


It's expected that every new iPhone and iPad that the company ships this year will come with Touch ID fingerprint sensors. Presumably, those would be accompanied by home buttons made of sapphire crystal, and would launch in time for the holiday shopping season.

And it's likely Apple will also continue to use sapphire crystal lens covers for its 2014 iPhones. And there's also the chance that the material could make its way to this year's iPad cameras.

In last year's holiday season, Apple sold a whopping 81 million combined iPhones and iPads. Given the company's usual year-over-year growth with new product launches, it's likely that Apple will approach or even exceed 100 million iPhone and iPad units this fall.

Assuming that most of those would be Apple's latest flagship models, and assuming that the latest iPhones and iPads all sport Touch ID, Apple would need sapphire crystal home buttons for tens of millions of devices. Devices that would be shipped in a single quarter.

Suddenly, a $578 million investment in sapphire crystal doesn't seem so mysterious.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 104
    wizard69wizard69 Posts: 12,719member
    The obvious thing here is that they have built a huge factory to produce this stuff. It appears that the factory has excess capacity relative to the needs of Touch ID and camera lenses, so that material has to be going someplace. For mystery fans it certainly is something to speculate about.

    Given this the materials has many potential uses that are ignored by the press. Everything from heat spreaders to substrates for electronics are a possibility.
  • Reply 2 of 104
    This is one of the most depressing articles I've read in a while. lol
  • Reply 3 of 104
    clemynxclemynx Posts: 1,509member
    Why did Apple extend its Liquidmetal exclusivity then? I think they might use I t for metal accents on the next iPhone.
  • Reply 4 of 104
    adamwadamw Posts: 114guest

    Apple obviously has a reason for Sapphire to be used in their future products. Apple, being Apple, will probably keep its intentions secret until it reveals any new products. We shall see what Apple chooses to use it for.

  • Reply 5 of 104
    knowitallknowitall Posts: 1,233member
    The new watch will be Liquidmetal with sapphire.
    The iPhone will probably keep aluminium and gorilla glass.
  • Reply 6 of 104
    I find this article a bit biased on the side of "don't get your hopes up". The last several years, we've seen apple make some Substantial investments in material technologies (sapphire crystal and liquidmetal). It's hard to believe that these would be for minor, under-the-hood tweaks. There's simply been too much money invested. The numbers don't make sense unless Apple is planning to use these improvements in a big way. Or at least Some benefit that would outweigh the trouble. Not for just "hinges" and technologies like touchID that we've already got.

    In fact, Jonny Ive's recent interview with NYT specifically references new materials for future products. "I would love to talk about future stuff - they're materials we haven't worked in before," Ive said. "I've been working on this stuff for a few years now. Tim is fundamentally involved in pushing into these new areas and into these materials."
  • Reply 7 of 104
    asciiascii Posts: 5,941member

    It's a good point that you'd only use it where it best fits, such as surfaces that have to be crystal clear, like camera lenses and fingerprint scanners.  But it's hard to know whether the factories are just for more of the same without knowing numbers. Maybe there is something else they are going to make that also has to be crystal clear see through, that is not a camera lens or fingerprint scanner (or screen). Medical devices often require extremely good quality parts.

  • Reply 8 of 104
    malaxmalax Posts: 1,598member

    Most of the watches I own have sapphire crystal faces.  It's hardly a stretch to assume that, in addition to serving as touch ID covers, sapphire will be used on the (eventual) "iWatch" (which I hope is called something else).  I don't really care is my next iPhone or iPad has a sapphire or gorilla glass or transparently aluminum screen.  Scratching has never been a problem on my Apple devices.

  • Reply 9 of 104
    The problem is that they keep extending their rights to LM, as has been mentioned.
  • Reply 10 of 104
    rogifanrogifan Posts: 10,669member
    winchester wrote: »
    I find this article a bit biased on the side of "don't get your hopes up". The last several years, we've seen apple make some Substantial investments in material technologies (sapphire crystal and liquidmetal). It's hard to believe that these would be for minor, under-the-hood tweaks. There's simply been too much money invested. The numbers don't make sense unless Apple is planning to use these improvements in a big way. Or at least Some benefit that would outweigh the trouble. Not for just "hinges" and technologies like touchID that we've already got.

    In fact, Jonny Ive's recent interview with NYT specifically references new materials for future products. "I would love to talk about future stuff - they're materials we haven't worked in before," Ive said. "I've been working on this stuff for a few years now. Tim is fundamentally involved in pushing into these new areas and into these materials."
    Yep. I think this is the year we see new materials put to use. My guess is with a wearables device.
  • Reply 11 of 104
    emoelleremoeller Posts: 431member
    I agree with Knowitall, but I also believe that Touch ID will be embedded in all of Apple's products (including laptops and desktops). That combined volume would justify the investment in sapphire. As for liquid metal it will continue to be used in unique situations where it will provide high value in smaller part applications.

    I am a huge fan of Touch ID and have waited on purchase of a new iPad until it is incorporated in the product line.
  • Reply 12 of 104
    Materials science is a big deal. Recently I was at a lecture where the researcher was discussing the life cycle of new materials. The labs at universities do the basic research, where funding is tight but where all new knowledge starts, then it takes another twenty years of work and invention to make the materials available for general use.

    The need for new materials is increasing because the problems that need to solved require it. The goal of the scientific and engineering communities now is to shorten the life cycle to ten years. They think they can do it.

    Sapphire and LM are in their yet 20 year cycle for perhaps new uses for these materials. Somebody has to make the investments and see the potential of materials. Apple is that somebody.
  • Reply 13 of 104
    I believe they will be using saphire in the new phones, but that the display will be a combination of gorrilla glass and saphire. GT Advanced Technologies has developed a process by which they can create extremely thin layers of saphire that can and may be used as a laminate on the gorrila glass, for extra strength and scratch resistance. I think there is a chance of liquid metal being used too, in the i6 or in future models, as it would add stability to the chasis, which would help prevent breakage if dropped.


    From Seeking Alpha (so take it with a grain of salt)

    "Hyperion is an ion implanter that has the ability to cut silicon, silicon carbide, sapphire, germanium and other crystalline material substrates to the thickness of 20 microns - traditional methods cut these materials at 200 microns. The biggest advantage of the process is the cost-efficiency - one of the biggest hurdles for the clean energy is the cost of the per watt energy generation. Hyperion can cut down that cost by about 50% for a vertically integrated company.

    Also, last month, Apple was granted yet another patent called "Methods and systems for integrally trapping a glass insert in a metal bezel." This means that Apple can now flawlessly enclose sapphire inside of LiquidMetal bezels."


    Apple and GTAT recently opened a second though smalled plant in Salem, Massachusetts. If they did not intend to expand their isage of saphire in i devices why would they continue to increase their investment in both Saphire and Liquidmetal.
  • Reply 14 of 104
    nolamacguynolamacguy Posts: 4,758member
    winchester wrote: »
    I find this article a bit biased on the side of "don't get your hopes up".

    that isn't bias, it's a conclusion. AI doesn't have a horse in the race and cannot be biased.

    frankly, unless one is a metallurgist, I don't know why anyone cares which metal is or is not used. other than to brag about it due to the name, which would be stupid. I just want good products that continue to offer value.
  • Reply 15 of 104
    solipsismxsolipsismx Posts: 19,566member
    emoeller wrote: »
    I am a huge fan of Touch ID and have waited on purchase of a new iPad until it is incorporated in the product line.

    I assume you do what I started doing weeks, if not days, after getting an iPhone 5S. I started trying to use Touch ID on my iPad and then blankly starring at the display for far longer than is reasonable before realizing that there is no Touch ID.

    It's rare when a new technology can so quickly rewire how you've been doing a task for many years and it's even more rare that additional security is also the more convenient solution.
  • Reply 16 of 104
    asdasdasdasd Posts: 5,265member
    I can see Touch ID coming to macs too. For App Store purchases and keychain.
  • Reply 17 of 104
    quansterquanster Posts: 34member

    Sapphire might not show up on the iPhone 6 but you cannot use Liquidmetal as a cautionary tale for a number of reasons:

     

    1.  Liquidmetal is not ready for mass production.  The creator of Liquidmetal himself stated as much.  It will take a couple of years for that to happen.  Sapphire IS ready for mass production.  The Arizona plant is cranking them out as we speak.

    2.  Apple entered a 20 millions contract with Liquidmetal.  But the contract with GTAT is 578 millions.  It shows how serious Apple is at ramping the production up by the end of 2014.  You don't throw out that amount of money for just enough sapphire crystal to cover a watch's face.

    3.  The CEO of GTAT said this is their transformative year and predicts a 100% increase in revenue in 2014...most of that coming at the end of the year during their quarterly earning conference call.  You don't make that kind of announcement if something big isn't happening.  And he reiterated in the last telecon that they are on track.  

    4.  The amount of equipments in the plant can produce way more than what is needed to cover watch faces.  

     

    By the way Liquidmetal has already granted Apple the right to use this metal in ALL commercial electronic products in perpetuity.  The renewal of the contract is to allow Apple to use any new patent related to this metal alloy that might come out from their research together from now until the end of the new contract.  LQMT will not earn a penny from any product that Apple produces using this metal.  They do that in exchange for Apple's help at researching how to mass produce this product.  So that they can offer it to other clients in fields other than commercial electronic products.  

  • Reply 18 of 104
    asdasdasdasd Posts: 5,265member
    Great article btw. Good research. Informative about the processes and constraints. Mild but supportable conclusions. Old school journalism.
  • Reply 19 of 104
    flaneurflaneur Posts: 4,509member
    I believe they will be using saphire in the new phones, but that the display will be a combination of gorrilla glass and saphire. GT Advanced Technologies has developed a process by which they can create extremely thin layers of saphire that can and may be used as a laminate on the gorrila glass, for extra strength and scratch resistance. I think there is a chance of liquid metal being used too, in the i6 or in future models, as it would add stability to the chasis, which would help prevent breakage if dropped.


    From Seeking Alpha (so take it with a grain of salt)

    "Hyperion is an ion implanter that has the ability to cut silicon, silicon carbide, sapphire, germanium and other crystalline material substrates to the thickness of 20 microns - traditional methods cut these materials at 200 microns. The biggest advantage of the process is the cost-efficiency - one of the biggest hurdles for the clean energy is the cost of the per watt energy generation. Hyperion can cut down that cost by about 50% for a vertically integrated company.

    Also, last month, Apple was granted yet another patent called "Methods and systems for integrally trapping a glass insert in a metal bezel." This means that Apple can now flawlessly enclose sapphire inside of LiquidMetal bezels."


    Apple and GTAT recently opened a second though smalled plant in Salem, Massachusetts. If they did not intend to expand their isage of saphire in i devices why would they continue to increase their investment in both Saphire and Liquidmetal.

    Interesting. Remember this? http://techcrunch.com/2013/11/11/apple-fires-its-ion-cannons/

    And this video:
  • Reply 20 of 104
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by NolaMacGuy View Post





    that isn't bias, it's a conclusion. AI doesn't have a horse in the race and cannot be biased.



    frankly, unless one is a metallurgist, I don't know why anyone cares which metal is or is not used. other than to brag about it due to the name, which would be stupid. I just want good products that continue to offer value.

     

    Conclusion based on what?  The subject matter of this article is grounded solely in suspicion and prediction.  I read nothing in the article that gave solid evidence to proving or disproving the use of new materials.  It is one man's (or woman's) opinion, educated though it may be.  Opinion biased (or leaning toward) the idea that wide-scale use of new materials is improbable.

     

    As for why anyone would care which metal is used - well, thanks to the research done by Actual metallurgists, laymen like me can draw the "conclusion" that liquidmetal contains several superior qualities to metals like aluminum.  So, from that insight, it is my opinion, that I would love a phone that incorporates the structural benefits that stronger materials provide.  Not a metallurgist or anything.  I just like the idea of a more durable and resilient phone.

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