New manufacturing process promises scratchproof screens

A new manufacturing process developed by GT Advanced Technologies which produces sheets of sapphire half as thick as human hair, but almost as durable as diamonds, could provide scratch-proof surfaces for a variety of devices, according to a report in MIT Technology Review. The article goes on to say the manufacturing technology, known as an ion accelerator, can make fine sheets of other costly materials, which could also lead to better and cheaper electronics and solar cells.

Sapphire, or crystalline aluminum oxide, occurs naturally but can also be manufactured. It's scratch-proof properties have seen it used for making LED sensors on missiles. But it has been very expensive to make until now, which has kept it out of most consumer and pro-AV devices.

The conventional approach to making sheets of sapphire is to cut a large crystal of the material into thin slices.

GT uses a different approach in its new machine, which shoots hydrogen ions at a wafer of sapphire, implanting the ions to a depth of 26 micrometers. The wafer can then be removed and heated up so that the hydrogen ions form hydrogen gas, which expands and causes a 26-micrometer-thick layer of sapphire to lift off.

Ted Smick, VP equipment engineering at GT, says the next step is to engineer a system to automate the handling of sapphire wafers in a way that makes sapphire sheets at a fast rate. He estimates that designing and implementing such a process will take about nine months.