Silicon Valley's new diamond farm grows synthetic supermaterials
When Bowers & Wilkins was designing a speaker that would produce the purest possible sound for recording studios at Lucasfilm and at Abbey Road, it turned to E6 for a tweeter made of diamond. Diamond is extremely lightweight, but also stiff, which makes it the ideal material for use in speaker domes -- curved wafers, half the thickness of a human hair, that determine the quality of high frequency sounds. "Because it's diamond, it doesn't vibrate when you're using it to create the sound wave," says Geoffrey Scarsbrook, operations manager of E6's research and development unit. "That gives you a very pure sound."
When the 800 Series Diamond speakers were installed at London's Abbey Road, one of the world's top recording studios, engineers noticed a clicking sound during playback. "They came to the conclusion that the speakers must be faulty," Scarsbrook recalls. "It turned out that one of the guys operating the controls had a ring on his finger, and was tapping on the equipment during recording. It was a sound they had never been able to hear before. But with the diamond tweeters, they could actually pick it out."
But the synthetic diamonds that could truly put a sparkle in people's eyes is a so-called bionic eye being developed in Australia. A diamond electrode on a chip is implanted on the retina, and as images captured by a camera on a blind person's glasses are transmitted to the chip, electrical impulses stimulate the optical nerve. The image this produces is expected to be crude, but like cochlear implants in the ear, it is unscrambled by the brain. Diamond, says E6 chief technical officer Dan Twitchen, "is that link between the optical nerve and the silicon. It's amazing. World changing."
Element Six isn't currently involved in the bionic eye project, but Twitchen hopes the company's diamonds will someday help produce advanced medical technology for places such as remote parts of Africa. That would make it possible for many of the people who work in De Beers' African mines to receive modern health care for the first time in their lives.
"If you replace the huge magnets in MRI scanners with much more sensitive detectors," Twitchen says, "you can make it much more portable, and open it to Third World medicine."