Nano Science and Technology Institute

ADT Eyes Electronics and Sensors for Its Nanoscale Thin-Film Diamond

Advanced Diamond Technologies makes diamond one carbon atom at a time. ADT’s UNCD® (for ultra-nanocrystalline diamond) is born of U.S. Department of Energy research and uses a nanometer-scale process to make a continuous film comprised of the smallest grains of diamond known. UNCD, consisting of diamond grains that are 3-5 nm in diameter, has uses in wireless communication, bio-sensors and nano-manufacturing. “We turn 50 cents of natural gas into $500 of diamond by rearranging the carbon atoms,” said ADT’s president Neil Kane.

Advanced Diamond Technologies, based in Romeoville, Illinois, makes thin films of diamond one carbon atom at a time. The result could be more powerful cellphones, superior imaging at the nanoscale and more accurate and sensitive biosensors.

ADT’s UNCD films are comprised of diamond grains as small as 3-5 nanometers in diameter. The company calls this material “ultra-nanocrystalline diamond” and has trademarked the term as UNCD®. The diamond manufacturing process is born of research from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory. And in fact, the two technical co-founders of ADT are either current or former researchers at Argonne.

Nano World News spoke with ADT president and business co-founder Neil Kane about exciting possibilities in store for the company’s UNCD, and previews the discussion Kane will deliver during Nanotech 2007.

Kane says ADT’s nanoscale approach to diamond synthesis could hold the key to unlocking many types of industrial markets for diamond thin films. “In the past, most diamond films were tricky to make, and difficult to work with. So, even if projects did work, there was little commercialization because it was very difficult to manufacture enough reliably.” ADT’s approach attacks head-on many of these barriers to broader use of industrial diamond films– purity, reliable supply, and cost.

Because UNCD has nanometer sized grains, it is mirror smooth without polishing. This, plus its large area deposition process, makes UNCD affordable. “With our process, we turn 50 cents of natural gas into $500 of diamond by rearranging the carbon atoms, and we don’t require the post-deposition polishing that has characterized most diamond films,” Kane told NWN.

UNCD’s traits – smooth, pure, uniform, and low-cost – are attracting growing interest, especially among companies in communications and electronics that use thin-films. Makers of cellphones and sensors are tops on ADT’s list of interested firms. A short explanation about the “science of diamond” reveals why.

The Science of Nano-Diamond (ADT’s UNCD)

“Everyone knows diamonds are the hardest, most precious materials known. But many are unaware that diamond is low-friction, highly-insulating, repels water, and is bio-inert. And once you can predictably manufacture this kind of high-grade diamond, the doors can really fly open. Not only do we synthesize diamond, but we microfabricate it to turn it into devices such as resonators, switches and probes.”

ADT’s work, which arose from basic research Argonne, followed a simple thesis: “Platforms for synthesizing diamond have been immature, and that meant that diamond films were either of low quality or unreliable. Prior to [Argonne’s] work, making synthesized diamond was tricky and the end product could often be difficult to work with,” Kane said. “Our focus is to make the properties of diamond more predictable and guarantee a reliable supply.”

Armed with the basic science and the business-model, ADT at present is pursuing several opportunities:

Wireless/RF Devices - Offering diamond-coated thin-films to the RF/Micro-Electrical Mechanical Systems (MEMS) firms to improve wireless devices.

Inside every wireless/RF device there is a tuning fork that resonates at a specific frequency. “Diamond has the highest acoustic velocity of any known material, so if you can make a resonator (tuning fork) from diamond, it will perform at least twice as good as any other material and be very stable in different environments,” Kane explained. ADT is seeking to tap that advantage to give cellphones more power, higher encryption rates, and make them even more energy-efficient, he added. In fact, ADT is already working with DARPA on such an application for UNCD in military radios.

Biosensors – In biosensors, diamond can offer this boost to processing, but has another important advantage. “Diamond could extend the function and flexibility of bio-sensors in a couple of ways,” Kane said, including the ability to let a sensor detect multiple agents at the same time, and also let a sensor be re-used once an agent has been detected. “Today’s sensors are tuned to detect only one agent and once these sensors have been used once, it’s done: You can’t reuse them. We’ve found diamond will actually make sensors more robust and reusable.”

More About ADT

At present ADT has 12 employees, but has momentum. “We are still a young company, but we have the science and the process, and now many of the business-cases are becoming clear. So, we are actively in the transition right now from an R&D company to a true product company,” Kane said. Within the coming year, Kane expects ADT to announce at least two product families based on UNCD, in addition to its award-winning UNCD-coated silicon wafers (DoSi™ for “diamond on silicon”) which were announced in 2006.

ADT was formed in late 2003 to commercialize the UNCD technology, which was first discovered and developed at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory. ADT is the exclusive licensee to Argonne’s portfolio of patents for synthesizing and using UNCD. In addition to the Department of Energy, ADT has received generous support from the National Science Foundation and DARPA. In 2006, ADT received Frost & Sullivan’s ‘Product Innovation of the Year’ award as well as being a runner-up for the Wall Street Journal’s ‘Technology Innovation Award’. In 2007, ADT was named a ‘Technology Pioneer’ by the World Economic Forum.

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