$5M investment set for MSU’s ‘diamond-growing’ lab – Lansing State Journal

EAST LANSING — Consumers might be tempted to ask why diamonds are so expensive when perusing the offerings of a jewelry counter.

One reason has to do with the necessary conditions to form the planet’s hardest material. Diamonds naturally formed miles below the surface of the Earth under intense heat and pressure over the course of billions of years.

At Michigan State University, the process of growing diamonds from infinitesimally small diamond chips to full-sized industrial diamonds can take as little as a few hours.

Everything from single-crystal gemstones to diamond sheets with research applications can be created in far less time and without the pressure of an entire layer of earth resting upon them. Officials are hoping a recent multi-million dollar investment will further polish and cut the lab’s existing research into one of the most innovative in the country.

Researchers at MSU have worked since the late 1980’s to grow diamonds layer by layer in a fraction of the time it takes for diamonds to naturally form, said Timothy Grotjohn, director of research and development at the MSU-Fraunhofer Center for Coatings and Diamond Technologies. A $5 million investment from MSU and corporate partner Fraunhofer USA will go a long way to putting the university in a leadership position nationwide, he said.

“We want to be a leader in the country in the area of diamond synthesis and diamond electronics,” he said. “The materials we are creating are becoming more important with better properties and (this investment) will open up opportunities for future products and funding.”

The joint investment will nearly double the number of staff members from 30 to close to 60 as well as giving the lab the most advanced technology possible, Grotjohn said. An addition 15,000 square feet of lab space won’t hurt either. The lab currently has seven or eight chambers for diamond-growth, each resulting in a slightly different finished project.

Practical uses of manufactured diamonds have increased significantly since research began almost three decades ago, he said.

Diamond-coated drilling tools are in continual demand due to the material’s remarkable hardness and cutting ability. The effectiveness of diamonds as heat conductors also makes them incredibly useful for physicists and engineers alike, Grotjohn said. Plates of optically clear diamond manufactured at MSU’s lab can withstand the heat of lasers passing through them.

The lab’s largest project at the moment is a $1 million U.S. Department of Energy project focusing on manufactured diamonds in electronics.

It’s both for its strength and ability to conduct heat away from sensitive electronics that diamond is garnering increased interest for use in everything from high-end research tools to modern electronics, he said.

Robert Rechenberg looked through heavily shielded lab goggles into a diamond-growing chamber Friday morning. His interest in material science led him to take an internship with the lab in 2009, he said. It’s also why the German native came back in 2012 to work as an employee within the lab.

“It never gets boring,” Rechenberg said. ”It’s a very new field with lots of research to be done.”

The lab also has traditional gem-cutting tools used to clean and cut diamonds. Impurities can also be added to boost conductivity and open up additional applications, Grotjohn said.

Contact RJ Wolcott at (517) 377-1026 or rwolcott@lsj.com. Follow him on Twitter @wolcottr.

How researchers “grow” diamonds

Researches at MSU-Fraunhofer lab “grown” diamonds through a process known as vapor-phasing.

Hot plasma, also known as ionized gas, is run over a small piece of diamond, depositing layers of molecules on top of the existing structure. The gas is run over a small diamond chip at around 1,000 degrees celsius. 

Researchers can grow everything from a single crystal diamond to sheets of polycrystalline diamond measuring between 4 and 6 millimeters in diameter, said Tim Grotjohn, director of research and development at the lab.  Lab staff can also produce diamond-coating for industrial cutting and milling tools.