On May 27, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) was granted patent No. 8,738,104 for molding a liquid metal unit around a display screen with a thin laminate. This is more than a subtle indication that we will be seeing an iPhone released with a molded liquid metal body and a sapphire laminate. Both of these substances have unique and remarkably strong properties that, in theory, could make your phone bulletproof.
Sapphire is already in use, and in many places
Sapphire Glass isn't just used in iPhones. It's a key component in bullet-proof glass as well. You would think that a military Humvee windshield would have a thick block of bullet-resistant glass, but that isn't the case. The method of implementation is actually the same. In the case of the Humvee, the layer of artificial glass prevents the bullet from penetrating the cabin, but because the laminate is on the inside, the glass stays outside of the cabin. In the case of the iPhone, the laminate is on the outside to prevent scratching. In either case, you just don't need a thick layer of artificial glass to get the benefits.
Opportunity vs profitabilityThe process is the also the same
The photo to the right shows a laminated Humvee windshield that has been shot four times by an AK47, twice from the inside out and twice from the outside in. You can see that the form remains intact. While GT Advanced Technologies (NASDAQOTH:GTATQ) is manufacturing the sapphire glass for upcoming Apple devices, other manufacturers have been using sapphire glass for several years. Saint-Gobain SA , for example, is a supplier to the U.S. Army for sapphire armor and sapphire bullet-proof windows. Note, the Humvee photo below was not laminated with sapphire but with another substance. The process and results are the same, but sapphire may in time act as a replacement for the existing laminate, allowing higher-caliber protection.
GT Advanced Technologies has been knighted by Apple as the preferred supplier for sapphire screens. The two entered into a deal in October when Apple made a $578 million prepayment to the company. But until production, GT won't recognize revenue on the deal. The management team says it will be able to recognize revenue by year end, but when the company will become profitable is anyone's guess. With this mammoth investment, Apple bought exclusivity in an undisclosed number of markets, but this leaves a substantial number of opportunities in other industrial areas such as automotive windshields. At this stage, the trade-off is opportunity for profitability, so investors should realize there is no earnings support for GT's valuation today.
Liquid metal offers considerably more strength to the body
Liquid metal also has unique properties that make it much harder than traditional metals. The main property seems to be its flexibility in manufacturing; it can be molded like plastic, but it acts like glass in that the atoms don't line up in a pattern, making it considerably stronger than other metals.
Lack of grain contributes to liquid metal's strength
Unlike crystalline structures, no detectable patterns can be found in the atomic structure of the liquid metal alloys. The lack of a grain means that you can achieve superior strength and hardness compared to conventional metals. Since the atoms don't line up in a pattern, it strengthens the end product because the atoms don't slip on impact. The lower image is an amorphous structure and the one above is crystalline. It's easy to see the difference in grain.
Not just for iPhones, golf clubs, and warheads
One of the traditional uses for liquid metal has been golf clubs, and a quick look at this YouTube video comparing the hardness of a liquid metal ball-bearing with a Titanium one demonstrates why you might want to tee off with this new alloy. But you wouldn't be the only one looking to use liquid metal to improve your airborne assault. You might be using it on the fairways of your local golf club, but the military is testing it to replace depleted uranium warheads that are not as environmental friendly.
We don't know if there will be an announcement of an iPhone or smart watch made of liquid metal and sapphire glass at next week's WWDC conference, but it seems like the devices are in the works. Assuming we don't need a military-sized budget to afford one, indestructibility could be the next differentiating factor.
David Eller has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.