GT Advanced (furnaces, Pocketnow 001)

With a larger of the two jumbo-sized iPhones rumored to arrive later this year rocking a massive 5.5-inch screen, Apple’s adamant to buy huge amounts of thin sapphire laminates, likely to strengthen the handset’s cover glass. We know Apple invested nearly $500 million in high-tech furnaces and equipment for its Arizona sapphire plant.

The firm is operating the facility in partnership with GT Advanced.

We’ve also known that Apple and GT have signed an exclusive multi-year agreement and now Canonical CEO Mark Shuttleworth has gone on the record claiming that Apple has acquired three-year supply of sapphire screens…

Shuttleworth said in an interview with GigaOm:

Apple just snapped up the entire 3-year supply of the same sapphire display we wanted for the Edge.

He was referring to the Ubuntu Edge, a flagship handset which broke crowdfunding records, but never got made.

A report earlier this month looked into Apple’s equipment purchases for the Mesa plant, estimating the facility should produce at least a hundred million five-inch sapphire screens for the next iPhone.

Some watchers have mentioned twice as much sapphire screens.

Corroborating rumors published by Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal, a report earlier this week by The South China Morning Post asserted that both a 4.7-inch and a 5.5-inch iPhone model will use sapphire crystal for screen protection.

Contradicting the claim, Taiwan’s Economic Daily News said today that only the bigger model will use sapphire-strengthened screens via Apple’s partnership with GT Advanced. This phablet-style device apparently won’t use the iPhone branding, if Economic Daily News is to be trusted.

Citing Apple’s reliance on the expensive gemstone for cover glass protection, the story also speculated that supply of the device would be limited at launch.

Apple currently uses sapphire crystal to protect its Touch ID fingerprint sensor on the iPhone 5s and the iSight camera lens on iOS devices from scratches, nicks and dings.

Looks like sapphire protection is going to be one of the defining design features of the next iPhone.