The Lesser-Known Non-LED Sapphire Substrate Applications

Non-LED sapphire substrate applications have remained off manufacturers radar for a while. Even in 2013, the sapphire substrate industry is dominated by LED applications, while non-LED remains relatively small with around 36% market share, according to LEDinside’s latest sapphire substrate report. However, a consistent trend in 2013 has been the rise of smartphone sapphire substrate applications mostly leads by Apple’s introduction of sapphire substrate into iPhone 5 and iPhone 5S. But what about other applications?

While smartphone applications will probably become an increasingly popular non- LED application, other applications have remained in the back burner mostly due to costs. This is especially true for military window applications. A key challenge for manufacturers vying for a hold of military applications is the large crystal size and costs involved. Rubicon, which received a three-year grant from U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) valuing US$ 4.7 million in 2012 is still struggling to mass produce sapphire glass that can meet U.S. airforce standards using its Large-Area Net-shape Crystal Extraction (LANCE) technology. The sapphire windows made will be specifically for large polished sapphire infrared (IR) windows with a dimension of 900x 450 x 20 mm (36X18x0.8 in), according to a report by airforce-technology. com. 

Aside from being used in fighter jet windows, sapphire substrate can also be seen in warheads as a protective dome for guided missiles. Meller Optics, Inc. for instance has been focused on making sapphire covers for guided missiles. Sapphire substrate properties of being incredibly hard with 9.0 on the Mohs scale, just second to diamonds and thermal resistance make it incredibly robust for military applications. 

Other interesting applications also include the use of sapphire substrates in radio frequency (RF) transmission, Peregrine Semiconductor is one of the earliest players in this market. The company incorporates Silicon-On-Sapphire (SOS) technology into RFIC components. SOS can be applied in the field of automotives, smartphones, telecommunication infrastructure, industrial, aeronautical and military. SOS has advantages of having extremely good electric insulation properties, which makes it ideal for large size and high current applications. Aside for smartphone applications, LEDinside analysts are optimistic that the SOS technology has the most potential for growth with its increased applications and is likely to replace gallium arsenide in the near future.

While there are many other sapphire substrate non-LED applications that can be listed including luxury watch covers, semiconductors, window films and others, these remain relatively insignificant due to their market share. Window films for instance has a 10 percent market share in the non-LED sapphire substrate application, about a third for smartphone applcations, according to LEDinside’s latest sapphire substrate report. The other sectors have even smaller shares. 

Sapphire substrate has come a long way from being historically designed for aerospace applications with Russian and U.S. manufacturers dominating the technology to a global technology in 1960s to being mainly used in LED applications. It has also evolved from its past military role to become an accessible technology for civilians. Key market indicators denote the non-LED application field will become dominated by smartphone applications followed by SOS applications. Military and other applications will remain relatively niche markets with stable market share, relatively unaffected by recent market trends. 

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