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Sapphire usage in smartphones set to soar, study finds

Demand for the material will nearly triple over the next several years as handset makers eye sapphire as durable cover material for lenses, buttons, and displays, according to IHS.

Sapphire has found its way to the Touch ID on Apple's iPhone 5S.
Sapphire has found its way to the Touch ID on Apple's iPhone 5S.

Sapphire is becoming an increasingly popular material for smartphones, a new study from research firm IHS discovered.

Last year, global demand for sapphire ingots used to make substrates in electronics hit 32 kilometers -- the unit by which usage is calculated -- and that figure is expected to reach 54 kilometers by the end of this year. By the end of 2016, according to IHS, total sapphire demand will reach 84 kilometers.

While the demand for sapphire in electronics is largely fueled by the production of light-emitting diodes (LEDs), sapphire as a smartphone component is set to jump from less than 5 percent of demand in 2012 to 20 percent of demand in 2014.

Sapphire is becoming an increasingly appealing material to handset makers because it's notably stronger than glass and extremely resistant to scratches. Apple uses sapphire in its new Touch ID technology and also used it for the iSight camera lens cover in the iPhone 5.

According to IHS, demand for sapphire, which is the second-hardest stone in the world after diamond, will rise in the coming years because of the possibility of smartphone makers using it to cover lenses, buttons, and displays.

IHS' study comes just a month after an Apple patent application was published by the US Patent and Trademark Office that described a method by which sapphire could be used to build a consumer electronics device. The sapphire would become the central design element in the described patent.

Update, 8:48 a.m. PT: Adds details on sapphire demand.