Peer through the small window of one of Apollo Diamond's canister-like reactors, and it might seem as if you're staring at something from out of this world. The inside of the cramped chamber is bathed in a magenta glow more befitting a Los Angeles nightclub than a science lab. Evenly arrayed on a small plate at the center of this colorful haze are what looks like 16 lozenges burning with an even deeper pink hue.
As unlikely as it seems, each of those small pinkish disks is a diamond, growing from a tiny seed crystal under conditions carefully created and monitored by Apollo's proprietary software. Chemically, Apollo's creations are no different from the diamond that is squeezed from carbon deep in the earth at incredible pressure and temperature. "It still blows people's minds that you can manufacture diamond," says Bryant Linares, president and CEO of the 17-year-old company based in suburban Boston. "People still feel that there is something mystical about diamonds and how they are made."
But ever since the 1950s, when scientists created the first synthetic diamond bits (they were so tiny that they were more like diamond grit), researchers have been slowly demystifying the diamondmaking process and systematically trying to replicate it. Small bits of diamond--produced in a lab under extremely high pressure and temperature and used in cutting tools, optical equipment and lasers--are easy to generate. This type of production has become so routine that thousands of small plants all over China pour out synthetic diamonds suitable for cutting stone. Gem-quality diamonds of one carat or more, however, are trickier because at that size it's difficult to consistently produce diamonds of high quality, even in the controlled environment of a lab. But after a half-century of trial and error, that may be changing. Several diamondmaking companies are starting to produce high-quality diamonds to rival the stones emerging from mines, and they could supply enough of them to open up new applications for the use of diamond that stretch far beyond pretty pieces of jewelry.
It turns out that as beautiful as a polished diamond is to look at, it also possesses physical and chemical properties that make it an ideal workhorse material for everything from semiconductors to biosensors. "To my mind, it's a case of finding what diamond enables that nothing else can do," says Donald Sadoway, a professor of materials science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Because it conducts heat so well, for example, diamond could be particularly useful for the small-electronics industry, which relies on ever more powerful processors that generate incredible amounts of heat. (Just try working with your laptop computer actually on your lap for a few hours.) "When you go to the next-generation semiconductor, you're running something not too different from a toaster oven," Sadoway says. Because it doesn't retain heat, diamond can run processors of supercomputing power at lower temperatures compared with processors using silicon, the industry standard today. The molecular structure of diamond makes it ideal for handling high voltages like those found in switches for big municipal power grids. Physically, diamond's toughness allows it to withstand the searing heat of more sophisticated lasers and even the brutal extremes of temperature and pressure faced by the windows on spacecraft as they leave and re-enter Earth's atmosphere. And diamond's ability to resist corrosion from acids and other organic compounds makes it a good material for biological sensors that may one day be implanted in the human body.
It's this list of potential applications--and their untapped economic potential--that has attracted so much interest. The U.S. Navy and Army are investigating diamond's usefulness both as a next-generation power-grid switch and as a wear-resistant coating for military equipment. Gemesis, a Sarasota, Fla., company that has been selling man-made gemstones for four years, sets aside a chunk of its R&D budget for the electronics industry. Even DeBeers, the dominant producer of mined gemstone diamonds, has acknowledged the la- tent power of synthetic diamonds (the preferred industry term). DeBeers has maintained a small business selling diamond for drills, precision cutting tools and even tweeter domes in stereo systems, but in 2002 it rebranded that branch of its operations Element Six--a sign of its commitment to this fledgling side of the business. "The market for industrial diamond is growing at 10% to 15% per annum," says Element Six spokesman John Caldwell. "We are trying to push the boundaries of uses for diamond."