Enlarge /. The new generation of Gorilla Glass promises twice the scratch resistance of Gorilla Glass 6 from 2018.
It takes about two years for Corning to develop every new generation of Gorilla Glass, the tough material that graces a critical mass of smartphones. During this process, several update cycles were carried out to protect the screens from falls, to prevent splinters and cracks by increasing the so-called compressive strength. However, the newly announced Gorilla Glass Victus attaches the same weight to avoiding scratches. This is more difficult than it sounds and more useful than you think.
It's not that Gorilla Glass has completely removed scratches. But the last time Corning prioritized it as a threat was Gorilla Glass 3, which came out seven years ago. Since then, it has gotten a lot better for smartphones to recover from run-ins on the sidewalk, but they treat an accidental key move the same way they did when the iPhone 5S appeared. (Corning still supplies glass for the iPhone, but a custom formulation that differs from the Gorilla Glass line.) Enter Victus, which promises to double the 2018 scratch resistance of Gorilla Glass 6. Meters drop compared to 1.6 m durability of the predecessor.
Scratch the itch
The answer to "why now" is pretty simple; Customers started asking loudly about it. What is more interesting, however, is why this became as important as the survivability of drops. "We believe people will keep their phones longer," said John Bayne, who heads Corning's Gorilla Glass business. "Phones that are not interrupted during a drop event have a scratch."
And it's true: Apple announced last year that iPhone customers would upgrade less often. Holding on to your phone for three years is more time to spot nicks and bumps on the go, especially if the display survives a fall that would have required a full screen change a few years ago.
There is also the fact that it is difficult to make glass that is both scratch and drop resistant. The manufacture of glass is often a compromise game that you can see most clearly when looking for durable folding phones: the stronger it is, the less it can bend. In this case, it is not so much a direct contradiction to make these two characteristics play as it is a process of reinvention.
"The glass chemistry that people have used to improve compressive stress profiles is not necessarily the best for scratch performance," said John Mauro, professor of materials science and engineering at Penn State University, who previously spent 18 years at Corning.
For Corning, that meant starting Victus almost from scratch. (Sorry.) Glass starts with silicon dioxide, but from then on it's open time in the periodic table of the elements. "It's really an infinite range of options," says Bayne. "We start with thousands of compositions and do a lot of computer surveillance simulations, go back to a few dozen candidates, do some laboratory melts, and then two or three manufacturing attempts to get the ultimate glass."
The part of this journey that makes glass strong is a so-called ion exchange process, in which potassium ions push aside smaller sodium ions; Imagine replacing the billiard balls in a rack with slightly larger tennis balls. The rack is suddenly harder to move. For seven years, Corning has focused on pushing more tennis balls into this rack. Victus needed a different approach. "All this science for drops, sometimes the movements you do on a molecular level are a little different than scratches," says Bayne. "Our technologists really changed the compositional elements of the glass and how we replace it to show a significant improvement."
Enlarge /. Go ahead, touch it.
To be precise, Corning focused here on avoiding deep side scratches that you'll chase every time you try to catch up on a Patriot Act episode. It still works on the "micro-ductile" scratches that you only see when they catch the light. However, it turns out that regardless of the tradeoffs that were required to get this far, better hold against scratches will result in your display being less broken in the long run.
"If you had a flawless glass with no damage, it would be very unlikely to break if it fell," says Mauro. "But if it is already damaged by scratches, for example, this increases the damage."
The usual precautions apply here: Corning's laboratory tests are probably not a perfect indicator of how the glass behaves in real conditions and how manufacturers use Victus – in the past they could request certain shapes or a thinner version of Gorilla Glass – will work also on durability. Given that the smartphone glass in the Scratch Arena hasn't improved much for nearly a decade, it's welcome to be somewhere near the announced winnings.
Victus is not yet on the market, but Corning has supplied glass for most major flagship phones in the past. And despite the expected interruptions in the Covid 19 supply chain, Bayne says the company is ready to meet demand. That said, the next time you trade on your smartphone – which may be a few years later these days – the new one you get will stand much better against the hot things in your pocket.
This story originally appeared on wired.com.