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A peek into the history of sapphire crystal growth

Harris, Daniel C.

After the chemical compositions of sapphire and ruby were unraveled in the middle of the 19th century, chemists set out to grow artificial crystals of these valuable gemstones. In 1885 a dealer in Geneva began to sell ruby that is now believed to have been created by flame fusion. Gemnologists rapidly concluded that the stones were artificial, but the Geneva ruby stimulated A. V. L. Verneuil in Paris to develop a flame fusion process to produce higher quality ruby and sapphire. By 1900 there was brisk demand for ruby manufactured by Verneuil's method, even though Verneuil did not publicly announce his work until 1902 and did not publish details until 1904. The Verneuil process was used with little alteration for the next 50 years. From 1932-1953, S. K. Popov in the Soviet Union established a capability for manufacturing high quality sapphire by the Verneuil process. In the U.S., under government contract, Linde Air Products Co. implemented the Verneuil process for ruby and sapphire when European sources were cut off during World War II. These materials were essential to the war effort for jewel bearings in precision instruments. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Czochralski process was implemented by Linde and its successor, Union Carbide, to make higher crystal quality material for ruby lasers. Stimulated by a government contract for structural fibers in 1966, H. LaBelle invented edge-defined film-fed growth (EFG). The Saphikon company, which is currently owned by Saint-Gobain, evolved from this effort. Independently and simultaneously, Stepanov developed edge-defined film-fed growth in the Soviet Union. In 1967 F. Schmid and D. Viechnicki at the Army Materials Research Lab grew sapphire by the heat exchanger method (HEM). Schmid went on to establish Crystal Systems, Inc. around this technology. Rotem Industries, founded in Israel in 1969, perfected the growth of sapphire hemispheres and near-net-shape domes by gradient solidification. In the U.S., growth of near-net-shape sapphire domes was demonstrated by both the EFG and HEM methods in the 1980s under government contract, but neither method entered commercial production. Today, domes in the U.S. are made by "scooping" sapphire boules with diamond-impregnated cutting tools. Commercial markets for sapphire, especially in the semiconductor industry, are healthy and growing at the dawn of the 21st century.

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