Back in November of 2013, I explained in detail the rationale for a sapphire screen on Apple (AAPL) iPhone 6 in my column on Forbes titled Sapphire Screen For iPhone 6 Could Be A Real Gem. Since then, media has picked up on the story. Now there is a new twist that Apple will combine solar cells with a sapphire screen in iPhone 6.
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The argument for sapphire screen was based on Apple advancing $578 million to GT Advanced Technologies (GTAT) to produce sapphire on a large scale at an Apple facility in Arizona.
This morning my screen lit up with several trades on GT Advanced in the pre-market, the stock was trading up about 5% at the time of this writing. There is a well-researched story that is making rounds in the trading circles that claims that Apple will include solar cells in the sapphire glass screen of iPhone 6. The source of the story is here. The premise behind the story is three folds; the story points to an Apple patent about integrated touch sensor and solar assembly, a Foxconn prototype report, and Apple’s advertisements for solar engineers.
Here is the abstract of the referenced patent 8,368,654, “Integrated touch sensor and solar panel configurations that may be used on portable devices, particularly handheld portable devices such as a media player or phone are disclosed. The integrated touch sensor array and solar cell stack-ups may include electrodes that are used both for collecting solar energy and for sensing on a touch sensor array. By integrating both the touch sensors and the solar cell layers into the same stack-up, surface area on the portable device may be conserved. In addition to being used for capacitive sensing, the integrated touch sensor and solar panel configurations may also be used for optical sensing.”
It is worth noting that ‘sapphire’ is not mentioned anywhere in the patent filing. After reading the patent, it is my opinion that if challenged, the patent will not survive. The reason is that there is significant prior art similar to the patent. After all, the idea of using solar cells to power a phone is nothing new. Solar cell powered calculators and watches have been common place for over a decade.
There have been significant advances in making solar cells transparent so that they can be used in a phone screen. I have previously written about a laminate structure to form a sapphire screen. It does not take a genius to include a layer of a film embedded with solar cells. A French company, SunPartner Technologies, is among many companies offering such films. At Consumer Electronics Show, SunPartner and 3M (MMM) announced a transparent solar charging system for consumer electronics.
The story that is making the rounds today also relies on a report that Foxconn has completed assembly of at least 100 iPhone prototypes with sapphire cover screens. It is worth noting that the story related to Foxconn does not mention solar cells.
The third part of the story relies on Apple looking for engineers with solar expertise. The advertisements referred here are old and dated September 2013. Every phone manufacturer has been looking at adding solar cells to phone screens.
It is unlikely that solar cells will be included in iPhone 6. The reason is that the technology is not far enough. A thin transparent film with embedded solar cells has very low efficiency in terms of converting light to electricity. And there is not a significant advantage towards improving battery life. As with all technologies, the efficiency will improve over a period of time. A sapphire screen with a laminate of film containing solar cells is likely in iPhone 7 but not in iPhone 6.
Disclosure: Subscribers to The Arora Report have long positions in Apple and a supplier of sapphire.