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Late last week we released a piece about why Apple would want to construct a factory to make sapphire crystal, and why it could want to possess over $570M worth of that manufacturing in advance. Today, by linking a few even more dots, we can be able to piece together how it might get over the pricing and manufacturing volume obstacles in order to use the material in smartphone screens.

Let us start back in March of 2012, when a brand called Twin Creeks came out of relative stealth to talk about a brand-new production system it had actually created to manufacture photovoltaic (solar) cells that were cheaper and thinner, called Hyperion 3. The manufacturing process for the majority of solar panels includes making a block of sapphire or other crystalline silicon then slicing a.2mm-thick sheet off of it with a wafering saw.

Twin Creeks’ hydrogen ion fragment accelerator (basically an ion cannon) permitted them to put wafers around the edges of the device and smash them with hydrogen ions. Below’s a description of the procedure from Extreme Tech:

A fragment accelerator bombards these wafers with hydrogen ions, and with exacting control of the voltage of the accelerator, the hydrogen ions gather precisely 20 micrometers from the surface of each wafer. A robotic arm then transfers the wafers to a furnace where the ions broaden into hydrogen gas, which trigger the 20-micrometer-thick layer to shear off.

The procedure, when applied to solar, is then followed up by backing the sheets with versatile metal. The outcome is a big decrease in thickness of sheets without using saws. This lead to a huge decrease in costs.

Why do we love a cool, but esoteric production process for solar panels? Well, jumping back to our piece from last week, you might recall that Apple is entering on a manufacturing handle a business called GT Advanced Technologies. The offer will see Apple building a factory in which GT Advanced will make sapphire glass in high volumes.

The just trouble with the high-volume production of sapphire for smartphone screens is that many experts will inform you that it’s simply not affordable. A report in the MIT Technology Testimonial early last year quotes expert Eric Virey of study company Yole Développement as stating that a sapphire display could cost around $30 or be up to around $20 in ‘a few years’. Gorilla Glass, by comparison, runs less than $3 for a common display.

This is where it gets fun. See, GT Advanced really made an acquisition late in 2012 of a company called Twin Creeks Technologies. Together with that acquisition, GT Advanced got a lot of patents and equipment, including its Hyperion ion implanter (imagined above). Though the ion cannon was mostly used for semiconductor substrates and solar wafers, GT Advanced noted an additional use in its release.

‘In addition, GT anticipates to pursue the development of thin sapphire laminates for use in applications such as cover and touch display devices,’ the launch reviews (emphasis ours). ‘The Hyperion ion implanter has the potential to lessen, or in some cases remove, the requirement for wafering saws, which would significantly decrease the expense of production.”

So, the Hyperion tech need to enable GT Advanced to substantially lower the expenses associated with structure sapphire displays for smartphones. However super thin wafers made economical is only half of the puzzle. The various other half is a lamination process, where sapphire is mated to another sheet of product.

This brings us to a few months back, when Apple submitted a patent called ‘sapphire laminates’, where it goes over a range of methods to laminate sapphire sheets together with various other sapphire sheets or with glass. There are a variety of abstractions, but the key is a method which mates 2 separate sheets together to develop one ‘piece’. The essential claim we are taking a look at below is ‘a glass assembly making up: a glass sheet, and a sapphire sheet abided by the glass sheet, wherein the assembly is less than or around equal to 1 mm thick.’

This declare details a procedure where a glass sheet could be produced and mated with a sapphire sheet to create a display (another claim describes a ‘sandwich process’ as well, with two sapphire sheets). Why a screen with glass underneath and sapphire on top?

Because glass is much, much cheaper than sapphire and Apple has actually been utilizing it to create in-cell touch panels. Another patent filed late in 2012 discusses the process (via AppleInsider):

By integrating the layered property of an LCD and a touch sensor, a range of benefits can be accomplished. This integration can include combining or interleaving the layered properties described above. Integration can further consist of getting rid of redundant properties and/or finding dual functions (e.g., one purpose for the touch function and an additional for the display function) for specific layers or properties. This can permit some layers to be gotten rid of, which can be able to minimize expense and thickness of the touch screen LCD, along with streamline manufacturing.

Basically, Apple will be melding the touch circuitry with the LCD display, producing a single, thinner part. This will undoubtedly make the gadgets thinner and more economical if the rate of production is driven down. This works for both basic and in-plane-switching (IPS) panels, which Apple has actually required to utilizing recently. Sadly, there are not any industrial solutions for in-cell innovation and sapphire crystal as of yet.

Instead, Apple’s patent describes a method where it’s possible to meld the hyper-thin sheets of sapphire developed by GT Advanced with much, much less costly glass sheets.

By doing this, Apple might drive the costs of sapphire sheets down extremely low in contrast to the conventional method. It’ll have the ability to develop many of these very thin sapphire sheets from the same amount of basic material it would require to make one full piece of sapphire cover glass. It might then laminate the assembly together in the method that it currently does iPhones (but doesn’t do for iPads, even the brand-new Airs).

By doing this, Apple might extend the production and cost factors of sapphire enough to support producing full-size screen cover sheets, not just small wearable panels, buttons or protective cam covers. This, in turn, might suggest sapphire cover sheets that are harder and tougher than basic glass materials on your iPhone years earlier than many experts have anticipated.