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  • bluecheese4u bluecheese4u May 27, 2012 11:45 PM Flag

    Silicon Valley's new diamond farm grows synthetic supermaterials

    Silicon Valley's new diamond farm grows synthetic supermaterials

    By Bruce Newman
    Posted: 05/26/2012 11:27:49 AM PDT

    Click photo to enlarge In this photograph released by Element Six. Geoff... ((Tony Avelar /AP Images for Element Six)) Three Photos

    It is the hardest substance known to man, and because it takes more than a billion years for nature to conjure up each one, a diamond is also one of the hardest gems to come by. Every natural diamond is unique as a snowflake -- each one with its own set of flaws. But it's their strength -- not sparkle -- that makes diamonds useful in the production of industrial lasers, computer chips, and the development of futuristic applications such as a "bionic eye" that soon could allow the blind to see.

    Eager to embed itself among the idea factories where new technologies are being invented, this past week Element Six -- a global leader in the development of synthetic diamonds, with $500 million in annual revenues -- opened its first U.S. production plant in Santa Clara. The company's executives chose the heart of Silicon Valley, hoping to turn diamond into a semiprecious semiconductor.

    Synthetic diamonds are "grown" in E6's laboratories, where nanoscientists cultivate chemical compounds in diamonds to make them sprout, like farmers raising carats.

    Quantum leap

    Synthetic supermaterials are often microscopic in size, but have amazing potential to change the world. They can be used in "quantum encryption" to create communication systems invulnerable to eavesdropping. They can also deliver powerful medicines in the fight against cancer. A small amount of electrical current passing through diamond can brew something called "ozone water" that's a more powerful cleanser than bleach, yet completely green.

    At E6's new 20,000-square-foot facility, in addition to growing diamonds the company intends to grow its business by developing new applications for synthetic diamonds. To that end, the company plows 7 percent of its revenues back into research and development.

    In the world of synthetic supermaterials, there are no "blood diamonds" -- a problem in its precious gem business for De Beers, which owns the company. And most of the synthetic stuff looks decidedly non-precious.

    To simulate pressure near the Earth's mantle that produces natural diamonds, the Element Six lab uses high heat generated by gas chambers to "nucleate" its supermaterials.

    "If you turned the Eiffel Tower upside down and put it on top of a Coke can," says head of technologies Adrian Wilson, "and heated the Coke can to about 2,700 degrees, that's pretty much the environment that we're creating with these presses."

    Squashing a Coke can with the Eiffel Tower sounds like the kind of nefarious plot twist engineered by James Bond arch-nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld, who was drowned in a pool of superheated mud in "Diamonds Are Forever."

    Synthetic diamonds aren't quite forever, but they are designed to last a very long time, even when used as drill bits in oil extraction and harrowing tools to chew up road surfaces. "It is more expensive than tungsten carbide, but it lasts significantly longer," Wilson says. "So while the initial investment may be higher, over the long term you're saving money."

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    • Towering tweeters

      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."

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