x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

IT set to sparkle with synthetic diamonds

There is growing demand for the devices that can enhance technology products, such as preventing eavesdropping and even helping the blind to see.

Yash Pandey, a business manager at Element Six, displays a synthetic-diamond tweeter used in the Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series Diamond loudspeakers at the company's synthetic-diamond manufacturing facility in Santa Clara, California. Tony Avelar / AP Images for Element Six
Yash Pandey, a business manager at Element Six, displays a synthetic-diamond tweeter used in the Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series Diamond loudspeakers at the company's synthetic-diamond manufacturing facility in Santa Clara, California. Tony Avelar / AP Images for Element Six

An event that may one day come to rank alongside the first Model T Ford rolling off the assembly line has gone largely unnoticed by technology analysts.

The synthetic-diamond producer Element Six has opened its first manufacturing facility in Silicon Valley. The company, which is part of the De Beers group, says that the facility has been constructed in direct response to a growing demand in the United States for synthetic diamonds to be used in advanced technology applications.

The plant, which is in Santa Clara, will serve Silicon Valley's growing information technology (IT) industry. Synthetic diamonds have thermal conductivity and electrical properties that will enable what Element Six believes will be a "step change" in semiconductor efficiency, allowing the creation of a whole new generation of consumer IT devices.

The heat generated by silicon semiconductor chips is a major limitation on the design and functionality of today's smartphones, laptops and computer tablets. For example, much of the battery power and weight of many of today's high-end and low-end laptop computers is accounted for by the cooling systems needed for silicon semiconductors.

In addition to powering a new range of consumer devices, semiconductors using diamonds will provide additional technology benefits. Diamond semiconductors can, for example, be used to power applications using extremely complex quantum mathematics to generate encryption codes. These can be used to create mobile communications that could be effectively immune to eavesdropping.

This application is likely to have great appeal not only for military use but also for the business market. Much to the chagrin of the IT industry, some companies have become increasingly wary of using mobile communications networks to convey financial or other sensitive information, owing to the growing problems of cyber fraud and industrial espionage. Quantum encryption could reassure them.

According to a report on the global diamond industry produced by the international business consulting firm Bain & Company, the key advantage of synthetic over natural diamonds is that manufacturers can control their properties of hardness, thermal conductivity and electron mobility.

However, so far, many major firms of IT analysts, still firmly focused on Facebook's recent controversial public listing, are failing to take account of some of the major changes about to disrupt the global technology industry.

Other innovative applications of synthetic diamonds' properties include environmentally friendly water-treatment systems. A small electrical current passing through a diamond can generate ozone in water, which cleans more powerfully than bleach but is regarded as completely environmentally friendly.

Synthetic diamonds can even help the blind to see.

A diamond electrode in a semiconductor can be implanted on the retina of a damaged eye to translate images from a camera on a special pair of glasses into electrical impulses stimulating the optical nerve. Other medical uses could include portable magnetic resonance imaging scanners for remote or developing regions.

Element Six's1,858-square-metre facility is capable of duplicating one of the world's most precious compounds. Natural diamonds are produced over millions years by the pressure within the Earth.

But the new Element Six plant creates pressure artificially. The synthetic diamond producer compares the process to turning the Eiffel Tower in Paris on its head to apply its vast weight to a cola can.

Already a world leader in the production of industrial diamonds, Element Six, which has an annual turnover of US$500,000 (Dh1.8 million), is understood to be setting aside 7 per cent of its revenue for research and development into new uses for synthetic diamonds.

The company has also announced the construction of what it claims will be the world's largest and most sophisticated synthetic-diamond research and development facility, in Oxford, England.

Analysts should pay close attention to the fact that Element Six is part of the De Beers group of companies. De Beers dominates the world market in natural diamonds and has traditionally had a vested interest in opposing the acceleration of development of synthetic diamonds. But, by trying to stake out a major chunk of the synthetic-diamond market early on, De Beers has effectively admitted that the market for synthetic diamonds is set to grow as IT manufacturers embrace the new super material.

Diamonds can be manufactured artificially in great quantity. However, as yet there has been no consumer-led demand for synthetic diamonds as today the price of a synthetic diamond can be many times that of a natural gem. But according to Bain & Company, as the price of synthetic diamonds comes down, a new generation of consumers may come to accept the new product.

Before this happens, the diamonds will, however, be used extensively in mobile devices.

As the IT industry starts to evolve from the silicon to the diamond age, analysts should also pay closer attention to the progress being made by De Beers' competitors in this field.

These include Sumitomo Electric in Japan and Henan Huanghe Whirlwind and Zhengzhou Sino-Crystal Diamond in China and Apollo Diamonds in the US.

business@thenational.ae

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