On Seeking Alpha, Matt Margolis details the evidence for what could be a ground breaking new feature.
In February 2013, Apple filed a patent for an integrated touch sensor and solar assembly. The patent reads:
Integrated touch sensor and solar panel configurations that may be used on portable devices, particularly handheld portable devices such as a media player or phone are disclosed. The integrated touch sensor array and solar cell stack-ups may include electrodes that are used both for collecting solar energy and for sensing on a touch sensor array. By integrating both the touch sensors and the solar cell layers into the same stack-up, surface area on the portable device may be conserved. In addition to being used for capacitive sensing, the integrated touch sensor and solar panel configurations may also be used for optical sensing.
Margolis notes that the invention outlined required a "boost converter" that would allow the solar cell to convert its energy directly into the device's battery. Unfortunately, the "boost converter" would likely take up too much space to be put inside the iPhone.
In September 2013, Apple posted a job opening for a "Thin Films Engineer" who had extensive experience with thin-film technologies in either semiconductor processing or solar industries.
Then in October 31, 2013, Apple was granted a new solar touch screen patent that would allow Apple to power a device, without the need of a "boost converter". This patent was a significant improvement on the February 2013 patent. Apple actually states that "the electronic devices that will be able to take advantage of Apple's new solar panel include a MacBook, iPad, iPod touch and iPhone."
In November 2013, a partnership was announced with GT Advanced Technologies to open a Sapphire Materials facility in Mesa, AZ. Last week Apple began posting jobs openings for the Mesa location. Margolis took a closer look at the focus areas of those jobs and found that one focus area was on Physical Vapor Deposition. PVD is a method to deposit thin films by the condensation of a vaporized form of material onto surfaces. Another focus area was glass scribing. Margolis did some sleuthing and discovered that scribing is a process used to place ultra-thin film solar cells onto glass. Additionally, he learned that ultra thin film solar cells are typically "scribed" onto glass via expensive lasers.
Apple's recent hiring of a Thin Film Engineer and Manufacturing Design Engineer coincides perfectly with the idea that the company could be planning to scribe solar cells onto the sapphire glass panel for the iPhone 6. However, Margolis is able to take his theory one step further. A company called Manz AG out of Germany just announced a $50m EUR ($68m USD) order in its display division for solar cell coating equipment. The innovative coating technology was developed in close cooperation with a "leading smartphones manufacturer" and the purchased technology includes "innovative vacuum coating systems" as well as "laser process technology." Notably, Manz AG says the technology developed "offers excellent prospects for follow-up orders and corresponding high future revenue potential."
Margolis suggests that Apple plans to use the solar cell coating equipment ordered from Manz AG to scribe solar cells onto sapphire glass screens for its new iPhone. He offers the following checklist.
● Apple filed solar patents that will allow them to power their electronic devices directly through solar cells.
● Apple posted and filled a Thin Films Engineer position with solar experience.
● Apple signed a $578m contract with GT Advanced Technologies to provide sapphire materials (sapphire cover screens)
● Apple announced they would be spending $10.5B in capital during fiscal year 2014 including cutting edge lasers.
● Apple recently posted a Manufacturing Design Engineer position that includes "scribing" and "PVD coating" which relate to thin films (solar cells) and lasers.
● Over 100 iPhones have been assembled with sapphire covered displays.