There is impressive evidence that Apple is moving into solar power in a big way, not just in the projected 4.4 million square feet of office and manufacturing space slated for solar, but in the next generation iPhones and iPod Touch. In an impressive well-researched post on the Seeking Alpha investor blog, Matt Margolis puts together the diverse pieces of the puzzle and comes to the convincing conclusion that more than just growing sapphire will be going on at Apple’s new 1.3 million square foot plant in Mesa, AZ. Specifically, he argues that the combination of patents, job postings and equipment orders all point to Apple developing the ability within the coming year to etch very precise channels in the underside of the protective sapphire veneers it will be adhering to the new iPhone and iPod Touch screens into which it will deposit compounds to create highly efficient solar cells to help charge the devices.
Beyond this company-wide commitment to solar power, this strategy adds even more importance to Apple’s embrace of sapphire as a primary material for its products. GT Advanced Technologies, the company that Apple has contracted with to provide the sapphire materials for these efforts, has recently been able to drive the cost for an iPhone screen’s worth of sapphire cover material from an exorbitant $13-18 down to $3-5, which is closing in on the $3 that its current Gorilla Glass covering is costing Apple. But, as Margolis points out, “The reason why sapphire screens are so important to Apple and their innovation is because they need sapphire to protect all of their ‘cool stuff’ under the hood of their devices.”
Part of that “cool stuff,” as I described in this morning’s mobile payments post, will be the ability to uncouple the Touch ID sensor from the home button and potentially make the whole screen (or some portion of it) a fingerprint sensor. This technology, I argue, will have profound implications for the iWatch if it can incorporate Touch ID and become a cross platform pice of the mobile payment puzzle.
The really remarkable thing that Margolis has uncovered is how the protective surface of Apple devices could also help to charge them. This could help drive its signature “lighter and thinner” design process by enabling these devices to shed some battery weight and bulk because the built-in solar panels will keep the charge level topped off.
Here is Margolis’ fact checklist that he used to vet his conjecture:
- Apple filed solar patents that will allow them to power their electronic devices directly through solar cells.
- Apple posted and filled a Thin Films Engineer position with solar experience.
- Apple signed a $578m contract with GT Advanced Technologies to provide sapphire materials (sapphire cover screens)
- Apple announced they would be spending $10.5B in capital during fiscal year 2014 including cutting edge lasers.
- Apple recently posted a Manufacturing Design Engineer position that includes “scribing” and “PVD coating” which relate to thin films (solar cells) and lasers.
- Over 100 iPhones have been assembled with sapphire covered displays.
What is potentially exciting here is not only that Apple still has plenty of innovation under the hood and is executing on it at a level possible by few companies on earth. It is also that by throwing their efforts into the commercialization of solar energy on small scale and large it will serve to move the entire industry forward. Calculators have been solar powered for decades, why not smartphones, or, for that matter, toasters?
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