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Known more widely for its use in ceramics, it may be surprising to some that zircon’s use has expanded further into our modern world in the casing material for smartphones.
Already, companies in Korea and China are producing phones encased in zircon derived materials, and other leading smartphone manufacturers are set to follow suit with their next generation of 5G smartphones protected by the thin but tough ceramic material, rather than aluminium.
The exact material that gives mobile phones their protective armoury and high performance is Yttria-stabilised zirconia (YSZ), a ceramic in which the crystal structure of the commonly-used zirconium dioxide (or zirconia) is stabilised at room temperature and above by adding yttrium oxide.
The new cases enable stronger signals, much faster data download and wireless charging. The ultra-thin, but scratch resistant covers, can also be produced in an attractive range of surface textures and colours.
These new zirconia phone cases may also prevent the need for people to buy additional phone covers to protect their devices. Zirconia scores 8.5 on the Mohs scale of mineral hardness (only diamond scores a perfect 10) and so is very difficult to scratch or damage.
The benefits of YSZ are almost limitless. It allows ultra-thinness to minimise weight, while excellent thermal shock resistance protects devices against sudden changes in temperature. It is also transparent to radio waves, which is essential for fast data download at the high frequencies used for 4G and 5G networks.
Materials currently used to manufacture mobile phone casings have reached their download speed limits. YSZ on the other hand is already being used in the manufacture of the latest 5G models, capable of download speeds 10 times faster or more. And because of its non-conductivity, YSZ also supports wireless inductive charging, making unwieldy cables a thing of the past.
Amazingly, in the unlikely event of a smartphone case being dropped or knocked, it may also self-healing due to its advanced microstructure.
Interestingly, when it comes to the cost of manufacture, it is broadly the same as other materials when massed produced.
The demand for zirconia could significantly increase. According to Statista, smartphone sales were a staggering 1.56 billion in 2018 and show no signs of slowing down.
Taking current sales figures into account, and assuming a requirement of just 37g of zirconia per case, for all smartphones to move to YSZ cases would require at least 57,000 tonnes of zirconia (plus 3,000 tonnes of yttrium oxide) annually.
Based on current demand, global zirconium chemicals supply would need to increase by around 75%.
However, the industry has foreseen the increased demand for its product, not just via phone cases, but to meet the needs of ever more developments across the spectrum. While ceramic technology has been around for thousands of years in the form of porcelain tiles, kitchenware, washbasins, industrial tiles, there are increasing demands for advanced ceramics. Applications ranging from jet engines to biomedicine are increasingly utilising zirconia’s unique properties to meet exacting demands.
New production facilities are already being developed as the demand for zircon and zirconia increases. Zircon Industry Association’s Executive Director, Dr Keven Harlow, is confident that the industry is keeping pace with the increasing demand.
“The use of zirconia across the communications field is set to revolutionise the sector. These developments have been on the horizon for a number of years and production facilities are being developed across the world to meet the current demands and also the projected future demands.”
Australia and China already lead the field in the production and conversion facilities of zircon and this is expected to remain the case. It’s clear that as demand increases year on year, not only via the communications sector, but also in the many other areas of application , zircon and its derivatives will continue to play an even greater role in the technological advances of our modern world.