Smart Takes

The science behind stronger display glass on your phone, computer

The science behind stronger display glass on your phone, computer

Posting in Science

If you're the owner of a Motorola Droid phone or Dell Adamo laptop, have you noticed that it's awfully hard to break the glass of the display? That's no accident.

If you're the owner of a Motorola Droid phone, Dell Adamo laptop or Cowon S9 portable media player, have you noticed that it's awfully hard to break the glass of the display?

That's no accident.

All of those devices sport Corning's Gorilla glass, an environmentally friendly alkali-aluminosilicate thin sheet glass engineered specifically to be thinner, lighter and more damage-resistant for portable electronics with big screens.

I spoke with Dr. Donnell Walton, senior applications engineer at Corning, about the need for stronger glass and the science behind it.

SmartPlanet: What are people doing to their gadgets that they need stronger glass? What makes Gorilla glass different?

Donnell Walton: They're dropping them and they're touching them. They're coming into contact with the outside world in predictable and unpredictable ways. Users need a more damage-resistant surface.

Like many glasses used in these kinds of applications, Gorilla glass chemically strengthened. Glass is a brittle material. Brittle materials are extremely strong under compression but extremely weak under tension. When you chemically temper a glass, you immerse it in a salt bath and you stuff larger ions in all the surfaces and put them all under compression.

What's unique about Gorilla Glass is that because of its inherent composition, it can allow those larger ions to penetrate the surface more deeply to increase the compression tolerance and tolerate deeper scratches.

The compression pushes a flaw back. It's harder to break from a deeper scratch.

SmartPlanet: What's in it for manufacturers?

DW: It's all about returns and damage. With Gorilla glass, manufacturers are seeing a demonstrable difference in return rates. Some brands aren't even using glass. My phone, I'm ashamed to say, has plastic on it -- it's very easy to scratch plastic.

Back in 2006, Motorola showed an appreciation for the industrial look, so they made the Razr with soda lime glass. But customers were breaking the glass, so when the Droid came out, they used Gorilla glass.

Most of our business is with smartphones. Smartphones are where touch has taken off. You'd rather touch a glass surface than a plastic surface, for feel and damage resistance.

These phones cost a whole, whole lot -- you definitely want to be able to make a call after you drop it.

Gorilla glass is in the Motorola Droid as well as the Dell Adamo. A small company called Motion Computing makes ruggedized slate tablets with handles built into them, for first responders or UPS drivers or other jobs in the field. We're providing Motion with Gorilla glass.

Other companies include LG, Samsung and Cowon.

SmartPlanet: Why has it taken so long for Gorilla glass to appear? Why portable electronics?

DW: This is pretty new. It's all a couple of years old. Right now, all of our products go to consumer electronics: personal media players, standalone GPS navigation units.

Corning has been at this for 158 years. We're a glass and ceramics company. This particular glass started in the 1960s, with windshields. While that didn't really last back then, we started getting calls a few years ago about portable consumer electronics.

Our process originated in the 1960s, but its current incarnation started in about 2006. We're an old-school glass company that got the call.

It's the aluminum-composite composition that makes Gorilla damage-resistant. We make the glass in the same way that we make LCD glass.

Because it's more damage resistant, we can make it thinner. Thinner translates to lighter. Those traits are easily translated to consumer electronics.

We talked to desktop manufacturers, but thin and light was less important to them. We're definitely looking at home appliances, or uses in cars. Public transit and subways, we're in discussions with these folks.

Anywhere where you can touch or see, we're looking at.

SmartPlanet: Interfaces are changing rapidly. Are tablet computers the next big opening for your business?

DW: We're waiting. All these new touch interfaces are driven by the hardware and software, which isn't really there yet. Glass is ready to go.

Although, I just read your article on SmartPlanet about the no-touch interface. We don't want that. We don't want touchscreens that you can't touch.

Share this

Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure