Corning’s amazing glass, better known as “Gorilla Glass”, has been absolutely essential to the tablet and smartphone revolution. Before this wonder material came to market we had phones with buttons, so the screen could be safely hidden by thick plastic covers. Moving to a touch interface meant that the vulnerable LCD screen could no longer hide and had to be exposed on the surface.
Early touchscreen devices like Palm Pilots and such were notoriously fragile. My first Palm III had a hard, hinged plastic cover to protect the screen. A screen that shattered after falling 3 feet onto a carpet. A carpet! The last time I dropped my $600 smartphone onto concrete from 5 feet all I got were some ugly dents on one corner. That’s like a hundred years of advancement in my book.
So in 2006 when Steve Jobs went looking for glass that would be good enough for the iPhone and, four years later, the iPad, it was important that he got something that would be thin, light, strong, and scratch resistant. These are the core features of Gorilla Glass.
Keep it Glassy
Gorilla Glass as we know it today has actually been around for a pretty long time. Corning, the New York-based company that invented the glass, has been around since its founding in 1851.
Gorilla Glass itself was originally branded as “Chemcor” and was developed in 1960. It was never mass-produced until Jobs identified it as the right material for his new smartphones. Until then it was only made in small amounts for things like race cars that needed very strong yet very light glass. Now it is on a great many smartphones and tablet devices and Corning is a market leader in tech glass.
We’ve Got Chemistry
On the hardness scale Gorilla Glass is nearly as hard as sapphire, which is quite a bit harder than the metals your car keys are made of, for example. This is why the screen won’t scratch from being in a pocket with change and keys. A quartz rock, on the other hand, will scratch it up real bad, so don’t try it on purpose.
Hardness is not the only factor, though, since the harder something is the more brittle it usually is. Gorilla Glass uses some very cool chemistry techniques to make the glass very hard while retaining its ability to bend and flex without shattering or cracking.
In science terms a sheet of Gorilla Glass is alkali-aluminosilicate. Corning uses a process of ion-exchange to make the glass as strong as it is. An ion is a positively or negatively charged atom. In the process that Corning uses, large ions are squeezed into the spaces between molecules on the glass’ surface. The glass has relatively small sodium ions in it, but by putting it in a potassium salt bath and heating it all to 400C, the small sodium ions are swapped out for the big old potassium ones.
As it all cools down the bigger ions are compressed and the surface of the glass becomes resistant to being scratched.
The Best Version of Me
Thanks to the ongoing flood of money from smart device manufacturers, Corning has been in a position to really improve on Gorilla Glass. While it stood still for decades, now in only a few years it has gone through several versions.
Gorilla Glass 2 was 20% thinner than the first generation, without sacrificing strength.
By using advanced atomic-scale modeling they were able to make Gorilla Glass 3, which was first shown in 2013. This glass is 40% more scratch-resistant than version 2. It also managed to be even more flexible.
It seems that the company realizes that strength and scratch-resistance can only go so far and are now looking at other areas to improve. They have already shown off glass with ionic silver that kills bacteria and resists smears and smudges too.
Gorilla Glass 4 has been announced and promises to be yet again thinner, more flexible, and more scratch resistant.
Now that they’ve had a taste of the smart device market it seems Corning is expanding the portfolio. They have announced two new types of glass known as Lotus and Willow glass.
Lotus is meant for the new generation of OLED screens and Willow is meant to be used internally as display substrate. Both exhibit amazing properties such as flexibility and strength. One screen could use Lotus on the outside and Willow on the inside, making this a slam dunk for the company.
There is, however, a competitor on the horizon that could give Gorilla Glass a run for its money – sapphire glass.
Sapphire is harder than Gorilla Glass and can really resist scratches from just about anything. In fact, if you own a later generation Apple device it already has sapphire glass built into it. The little bit of glass covering the camera lens is made of the stuff. Your photos and videos are the first place you’d see some of those tiny scratches blown up to insane sizes.
Making an entire phone or tablet screen out of the stuff is still too expensive, but Corning’s competitors are hard at work trying to make it happen.
Corning says that they are not worried, as Sapphire glass is 10 times the price, 100 times the energy, and 1.6 times the weight of Gorilla Glass. It may make sense for specialist applications, but for mainstream phones and tablets? It may be too early for that yet.
Maybe the best of both worlds may be in the cards for Apple users though, since Apple has patented a way to coat glass with a thin layer of sapphire while keeping the other benefits.