The next wave of smartphones and tablets might have super-sturdy screens fashioned from the human-made version of a gemstone.
Manufactured sapphire, a substance already used to armor some military vehicles, would be an almost unbreakable alternative to the glass now used on the displays of mobile devices, according to a report in the MIT Technology Review.
Sapphire is the second-hardest material on the planet, behind only diamond. According to the MIT report, a sapphire smartphone screen wouldn't break when you dropped it and couldn't be scratched with a car key or by a sidewalk.
"I'm convinced that some (manufacturers) will start testing the water and release some high-end smartphones using sapphire in 2013," Eric Virey, an analyst for the market research firm Yole Développement, said in the report.
Currently, Apple uses manufactured sapphire to protect the camera lens on its iPhone 5.
Manufactured sapphire is made by melting down aluminum oxide, the compound that crystallizes into sapphire in nature, allowing it to cool and then cutting it with a diamond-coated wire saw.
One stumbling block could be price. Currently, a sapphire display for a smartphone would cost about $30, compared with $3 for the screens made by Corning's Gorilla Glass, the protective cover that's on more than 1 billion devices.
The MIT report estimates that sapphire would be about three times stronger than Gorilla Glass. But Corning spokesman Daniel Collins said the company isn't too worried.
"It is unclear to us if this could provide better overall performance than actual glass," he wrote in an e-mail. "There also are the questions about cost and product weight that must be addressed before sapphire would be a serious consideration for mass market applications."
Collins noted that Gorilla Glass can be molded into curved designs and multiple shapes without losing its strength, and he questioned whether the same could be said for manufactured sapphire.
The company says its most recent product, Gorilla Glass 3, will be in phones this year and is twice as strong as previous versions.
Virey said the cost for a sapphire screen could fall to $20 in the next few years, which might be affordable enough to make consumers give it a shot.
Another alternative would be ultrathin (and less costly) sapphire covers that would fit over glass screens for added durability.
GT Advanced Technologies, a New Hampshire company, is developing a method to make synthetic sapphire sheets that are the width of a human hair.
Other companies in the United States, South Korea and Russia are working on similar technologies.
"If costs can get low enough, these manufacturers may have a large market waiting for them," Kevin Bullis, senior editor of the MIT Technology Review, wrote in the report. "But they'll have to continue to contend with the incumbent technologies -- Gorilla Glass and similar materials offered by other manufacturers."