Embedded sapphire and Liquidmetal could arrive in iPhone 6

Embedded sapphire and Liquidmetal could arrive in iPhone 6

Summary: Apple may be developing the strongest iPhone chassis yet by combining two materials it has been investing in lately. Could it arrive in the iPhone 6 this fall?

TOPICS: Apple, iPhone
Tongue and groove flooring example - Jason O'Grady

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on Tuesday granted Apple patent number 8,738,104 for "Methods and systems for integrally trapping a glass insert in a metal bezel."

The patent describes a process by which a device's display is fused with the body (sometimes called the "frame" or "bezel"). The new process involves integrating the display (more on that in a second) into a groove along the inside of the bezel, conceivably to create a thinner, more streamlined design. Imagine a process like that of tongue and groove flooring, where pieces interlock into each other, below the surface. The result is smooth, yet extremely strong. 

In the current iPhone 5s the glass and the aluminum bezel are separate pieces and the glass rises above the edge of the device, as can bee seen in its profile view. The iPhone 5 is visibly thinner, partially because of the device's "chamfered" (or beveled) edge.

iPhone 4 and 5 profile views - Jason O'Grady
(Photo: iMore)

The photo above (courtesy of iMore) shows the difference in thickness between the iPhone 4 and iPhone 5, where Apple made a big reduction in overall thickness. It stands to reason that its new patent could result in an iPhone 6 that's even thinner than the current iPhone 5s.

iPhone 6 mockup compared to an iPhone 5s - Jason O'Grady
(Photo: Macitynet.it)

A recent mockup of the iPhone 6, courtesy of macitynet.it, shows how much thinner the iPhone 6 could be when compared to the current iPhone 5s.

The new Liquidmetal and sapphire process could allow Apple to manufacture much thinner devices. According to the patent:

"The formation of a bezel around a glass member substantially eliminates tolerance issues associated with the bezel and the glass member. Because the material (e.g., metal) used in the bezel is provided in liquid form around the glass member, there is effectively no tolerance that has to be maintained with respect to the bezel. The liquid flows around the edge of the glass member, and when solidified, effectively grabs and adheres to the glass member."

Current iPhone screens are manufactured from Corning's super-strong Gorilla Glass, but the patent mentions that "a suitable transparent material may include any synthetic transparent material, as for example, synthetic sapphire" (emphasis mine). You'll recall that Apple acquired three years worth of the supply of sapphire screens from manufacturer Canonical in February 2014.

As for the bezel itself, it appears that Apple may be finally using the LiquidMetal technology that it licensed in August 2010 and renewed last week. According to the new patent, Apple could bind a Liquidmetal bezel to a sapphire glass screen in a future Apple device. The result could be a seamless design the reduces thickness and benefits from the fused bezel and screen. 

The patent's abstract reads:

"Methods and apparatus for creating an overall assembly formed from a transparent member and a metal member are disclosed. According to one aspect of the present invention, a method includes positioning a transparent member in a mold configured for insertion molding, and providing a liquid metal into the mold. The method also includes hardening the liquid metal in the mold. Hardening the liquid metal includes binding the metal to the transparent member to create the integral assembly."

While thinness and strength will be positive benefits for a future iPhone (or iPad), it could come at the expense of repairability. When Apple moved away from screws and began bonding MacBook displays to its aluminum bezel with glue, the resulting display was a single part that had to be replaced entirely in the event of a crack or a chip in the glass.

The same could be the case with a sapphire glass and Liquidmetal-based device – it would be thinner, but might require an almost complete replacement if damaged. 

Kyle Wiens of iFixIt had this to say about Apple's newest patent:

Integrating the display assembly into the frame of the phone will likely make it more expensive to repair. Upcoming green cell phones standards will require more modularity for ease of repair and recycling, and it will be interesting to see whether this design is compliant.

I think it's possible for Apple to make an elegant, slim phone that is repairable.

An unfortunate side effect of patents like these is that in addition to preventing competitors from copying Apple's hardware, they can also prevent independent companies from producing compatible parts.

As devices get more integrated, it illustrates the need for electronics companies to sell service parts to consumers. The design of the next iPhone is an opportunity for Apple to show that their environmental claims are more than skin deep.

Topics: Apple, iPhone

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  • Seriously?

    The patent office just gave apple a patent for a tongue and groove joint?
    I'm speechless. I just...what the hell?
    • Speechless?

      Lost your tongue? C'mon, get in the groove. ANYthing can, and will be "patented."
      common sense
      • I'm pretty sure I'm going to turn into a patent troll

        I'm willing to bet anything that nobody has patented a tongue and groove system "for use between two pieces of wood for the purpose of joining wooden slats together to form a walking surface".
        I guess I shouldn't be surprised, no other part of the government seems capable of displaying anything resembling common sense.
        • You would be wrong. A tongue and groove system

          for wood flooring has been patented. Just like the steering wheel was patented, the typewriter keyboard was patented, the windshield wiper was patented, the keylock doorknob was patented.

          An invention is always obvious once someone has thought it up and diagrammed it.

          This particular patent is a method of tongue and grooving glass and metal and bonding them. It's just a bit different than tongue and grooving two pieces of wood.

          But you don't know enough metallurgy or physics to comprehend that.
    • Reading comprehension is lacking on zdnet.

      This is about the method to form the joint not the joint itself.

      I'm amazed at the lack of comprehension some people exhibit.
      • Nothing brings out the truly ignorant

        like a story on patents. Not only are they ignorant, they are proudly ignorant, shouting their ignorance in righteous indignation from the rooftops.
  • Only one picture (the tongue and groove illustration) visible

    The article is missing several images that are referenced within the text. Only one illustration, a drawing of a wood tongue and groove joint, shows up.
  • images fixed

    Something happened to the images shortly after the story was posted and they disappeared. I've re-added them above, so that you can see the profile of the iPhone 4, 5 and a prototype of the iPhone 6. If the iPhone 6 turns out to be as thin as the mockups it'll be extremely popular.

    - Jason
    Jason D. O'Grady
  • Production schedule

    If Apple is announcing the iPhone 6 in August (or Sep) is there enough time to produce the phones in the needed quantity if the patent was just awarded? Or is it likely they already started making it with the expectation that the patent would be awarded (patent pending)?

    Can the Sapphire screen survive a drop from chest high to a hard surface without breaking? If so I'd say the trade-off with repairability is a good one. If it's not then I say it's a bad deal for consumers.
  • Big Deal > that "Isn't"

    The metal could made with molecular films of metal (primarily silicon and titanium oxides) evenly shuttled into multiple layers. The types of metals used and the order in which they are deposited are factors. The edgess are produced by depositing thin layers of a variety of metal oxides such as titanium, magnesium and silicon to the glass in a vacuum. A vacuum chamber is needed in order to produce a pure environment for the vapors to travel. The materials are vaporized in a crucible by a high voltage electron beam onto the rotating glass above. The glass must rotate to achieve a uniform coating.
    With all of that it would not make the iPhone work better, look better or sell better, but it would make more hype for a company that lives off of it.
    • You have got to be kidding!

      You posit a hypothetical process that has NOTHING to do with the current article, NOR any speculation about the next gen iPhone, NOR even any rumored iPhone, then lambast Apple due to hype over their imaginary use of your imaginary process.
      You're trolling has risen to new heights!