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iPhone 8 and beyond: The future of smartphones

David Price | June 24, 2016
Future smartphone developments, from graphene and lithium-air batteries to holograms, OLED and motion charging

Rumoured plans to rely on an Apple-backed sapphire plant in Arizona (which had the capacity to manufacture 200 million 5-inch iPhone displays per year) fell through. But more recent reports suggest that long-term Apple supplier Foxconn is gearing up to build its own sapphire plant in Taiwan at a cost of $2.6bn.

Project Phire

Corning, the company that makes Gorilla Glass, responded to the looming threat of sapphire glass in early 2015 with the announcement of an ultra-hardened composite material codenamed Project Phire.

James Clappin, president of Corning Glass Technologies, told investors: "We told you last year that sapphire was great for scratch performance but didn't fare well when dropped. So we created a product that offers the same superior damage resistance and drop performance of Gorilla Glass 4 with scratch resistance that approaches sapphire."

Apple never discusses the materials it uses for iPhone screens, but it's great news for consumers that suppliers are jousting to provide the best and most durable screen glass.

Graphene

Sapphire glass is already being used on the non-Sport models of the Apple Watch, and Project Phire appears to be in a reasonably advanced state of development, but we're getting closer to the realms of science-fiction.

Graphite, the material used in standard pencils, is made up of stacks of sheets of carbon, each one only a single atom thick. This is why it's so good for writing: the layers naturally slide off on to the paper.

But graphene is a different matter. Graphene is what you get if you're clever enough to isolate one of the layers in graphite, leaving you with a substance that's effectively two-dimensional. It's the thinnest substance known to man, about a million times thinner than a human hair, and for that matter quite possibly the strongest (it's 100 times stronger than steel) and a phenomenally good electrical conductor - 1,000 times better than copper. Oh, and it's virtually transparent, too.

All of which makes graphene an exciting prospect for tech manufacturers. Most obviously, it would make for a tremendously durable coating material for the screen (and would lend itself to bendable displays, too) or indeed any part of the device; but it could really appear in almost any of the sections of this article. Graphene would be a superior replacement for silicon in processor chips, or could be used to make more efficient batteries and solar cells. It's marvellous stuff. 

We're also pleased to report that graphene is British - sort of. It was discovered by the Soviet-born physicist Andre Geim at the University of Manchester, where it continues to be studied. (Entertainingly, Geim is the only scientist so far to be awarded both a Nobel and an Ig Nobel prize.)

 

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