Apple has invented a laser system that can precisely color sapphire materials for a possible future iPhone


Rumors claim that one of Apple’s 2017 iPhones will be made of a glass substrate which could be ceramic, sapphire, liquid metal glass, zirconia or another similar material. Recent patents (one, two and three) described a “transparent display cover structure”, a “sapphire coating equipment” and a “laser polishing system for a ceramic iPhone”. Yesterday, the US Patent & Trademark Office published a patent issued by Apple that relates generally to sapphire materials, and more specifically, laser-colored sapphire material and methods of coloring sapphire material using lasers. The new laser system offers a way to color all or part of a glass-based iPhone without using paints that can crack and/or peel, as the matte black iPhone 7 recently did.

Background to Apple’s patents

Conventional electronic devices are usually made from durable materials to protect the electronic components of the device. Various parts of the device are thus formed of materials which resist the daily wear and tear applied to the electronic device. That is, portions of the electronic device may be formed from a material that can withstand constant handling of the electronic device by a user, transportation and/or packaging of the electronic devices, and unwanted blunt forces (eg, falling, sitting on) applied to the electronic device during use. Conventional electronic devices can be formed from metals (eg, aluminum), reinforced glass, and/or polymers (eg, plastic, rubber).

Alumina (Al2O3), an example of which is typically sapphire, is not used to form most parts of electronic devices. Due to the physical and/or chemical properties of sapphire, certain manufacturing processes used to form parts or components of an electronic device may be difficult and/or expensive to implement on sapphire material. For example, packages for electronic devices typically include designs, text, or logos formed directly on or within the material forming the package. Designs, text or logos can be painted directly onto a surface of the case, and the case can undergo various processes (eg, heat setting, coating, etc.) to prevent the paint from being removed. However, over time and normal use of the electronic device, the paint may begin to wear off and peel off, as the paint is only applied to one surface of the sapphire material.

Laser engraving or etching can also be used to form logos on sapphire. However, these processes generally require the use of difficult and complex intermediate steps, such as ion bombardment of the sapphire material, for the etching or etching to be successful on the sapphire material. These complex steps, which are necessary due to the physical and/or chemical properties of sapphire, increase the cost, time, and complexity of successfully engraving or etching the sapphire. In addition, the visible color of each logo engraved or burnt on the sapphire material is generally limited to black, gray or white.

Apple’s Solution

Patent issued by Apple generally for sapphire materials, and more specifically, for laser-colored sapphire material and methods of coloring sapphire material using lasers.

In a particular embodiment, the process or method of coloring the sapphire material includes positioning the sapphire material on an opaque substrate material, typically a metal or metal alloy, and then exposing the opaque substrate material to a laser through the sapphire material to induce a chemical change in the exposed part of the sapphire material. The chemical change in the sapphire material results in a visible color change through a portion of the sapphire material that is exposed to the laser. Specifically, the formation of color in the sapphire material is the result of an exchange of ions and/or atoms between the opaque substrate material and the sapphire material, and/or the incorporation of ions and/or atoms of the opaque substrate material in the crystal lattice of the sapphire material.

An electronic device such as an iPhone includes a housing, a protective glass coupled to the housing to protect a display positioned within the housing, and an input button positioned through a portion of the housing. The electronic device also includes a sapphire component forming at least a portion of an outer surface of the case.

Apple’s patent FIG. 1B noted above represents the sapphire material, the opaque substrate material, and the laser used to color the sapphire material; FIG. 7B shows a rear view of a smartphone that includes a sapphire material having a visible colored portion; The enlarged figure. 2G represents the distinction in the chemically modified portions and the visible color regions 130 and 140 formed therein.

Apple further notes that the visible color portion is permanently formed into the sapphire material and does not come off easily. In addition, the visible color varies the operating parameters and/or the characteristics of the laser beam and/or the material composition of the opaque substrate. Accordingly, the sapphire material may comprise distinct and different visible colored portions, and even multiple colored regions within the same sapphire material.

In one non-limiting example, the laser can be an infrared (IR) laser that can emit an IR laser beam (eg, a #122 laser beam) to and/or through the #100 sapphire material. Operational parameters and/or characteristics (e.g., frequency, wavelength, pulse width, etc.) of the laser and/or emitted laser beam can substantially affect the visible color formed on/in the sapphire material during a coloring process.

For the record, the patent granted by Apple which was issued yesterday was filed in the third quarter of 2015, well after the problems with the sapphire factory partner GT Advanced Technologies which filed for bankruptcy.

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