Diamonds may be a system builder’s best friend

Screen siren Marilyn Monroe once said diamonds are a girl’s best friend.

Now with the possibility of inexpensive diamond-based semiconductors on the horizon, diamonds may become a best friend to system builders and brand name PC vendors.

There are currently four organizations that CDN has

found, as of press time, that are attempting to make commercial-ready diamond-based semiconductors for computers. They are: Gemesis of Sarasota, Fla., Apollo Diamond of Boston, the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), part of Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and little known Professor Dr. Akira Hirose of the University of Saskatchewan.

Diamond-based semiconductors are not necessarily made from real diamonds dug up from mines in South Africa or the Canadian arctic, but synthetics or man-made diamonds. We are not talking about Shopping Channel-quality cubic zirconia gems either. These are produced in various ways using pure carbon either under a process of intense heat and pressure in a chamber that crystallizes the carbon to make near flawless diamonds that are less than $5 a carat or inside a plasma reactor.

The debate between diamonds over silicon has not started yet, but Dr. Hirose said diamonds are able to absorb heat better than silicon. Diamonds, after all, are the hardest substance known to man, but they also have the highest thermal conductivity also, which means a tremendous amount of heat-somewhere around 700 degrees centigrade-can pass through a diamonds without damaging it.

In contrast, today’s microprocessors from the likes of Intel and AMD can run as high as 200 degrees Fahrenheit or 85 degrees Celsius. According to Dr. Hirose, diamond-based semiconductors will be able to run computers at a much faster rate. So fast, he says, that by comparison the silicon-based semiconductor would melt.

Research into diamonds is not new. Chipmakers already know diamonds can increase the speed of a PC without setting it on fire. The drawbacks have always been the cost associated with diamonds. But that may change.

Dr. Hirose started his research three-years ago. His method is to create n-type diamonds using impurities, or what he calls “”doping””, to produce diamond-like carbon. There are two-types of diamonds: n-type and p-type. The difference between n-type, which is man-made and p-type, the real things, but with many flaws.

“”There are many impurities to control and you cannot have any impurities. You have to have a pure diamond to make it work,”” Dr. Hirose said.

With that Dr. Hirose has been able to produce many samples cheaply. The difference between Dr. Hirose’s gems and those produced by Gemesis and Apollo Diamond vary by only size. The University of Saskatchewan team so far can only make synthetic diamonds no bigger than a millimeter.

“”It is much cheaper to produce diamonds this way. But we can’t create huge diamonds with plasma. The biggest is still one millimetre in size. That is the biggest we can make. With this kind of application, we do not need anything bigger than one millimeter. You do not need that much to make a semiconductor transistor,”” Dr. Hirose said.

In comparison, Gemesis and Apollo Diamond can produce three-carat near flawless man-made diamonds.

Canadian government backing

It looks like the Canadian-government is taking Dr. Hirose’s work seriously. The government will kick in $1.4 million over seven years through its Canada Research Chair in Plasma Science. Dr. Hirose also receives money from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation.

This is a far cry from the ¥740 million (US$6 million) the Japanese government gives NEDO, but Dr. Hirose says that the money is more than enough to develop a prototype diamond-based semiconductor in five years and a commercial-ready diamond-chip five years after that.

Dr. Hirose sees diamond-chips first used for special purposes such as high-temperature computing. “”Eventually families will have these diamond-based PC. That is my hope,”” he said.

Chipmakers back silicon

Intel Corp. is certainly doing research on materials like diamonds, but has no plans to move away from silicon in the near future.

“”Intel is carefully monitoring research and work into the use of diamonds as semiconductors but the company has no plans to abandon silicon in the near future,”” said Kari Skoog, an Intel spokesperson.

As for Intel’s chief rival, AMD, it has not done any research into diamond-based semiconductors, nor does it have anything in the works, said AMD spokesperson Rob Keosheyan.

Rick Bause, a spokesperson for IBM Microelectronics, said Big Blue is looking at new materials such as copper wire interconnects, silicon germanium transistors and silicon-on-insulator substrates in its semiconductor research, but not diamonds.

The potential of diamonds may cause a dramatic shift in the way computers are built in the future. There is a strong possibility that system builders and brand name PC vendors such as Apple, IBM, HP, Gateway or Touch, Seanix and MDG in Canada would want to start producing their own diamond-based chips and stop buying them from chip makers such as Intel and AMD.

“”These companies will be interested in doing that,”” Dr. Hirose said.

He added that it is for this purpose the University of Saskatchewan started developing this technology.

Frank Luk, president of Supercom, the makers of Touch-branded PCs said distributors sell what is popular.

Speaking for Supercom and Touch Systems, Luk said there is no interest in producing diamond-chips for, no matter how much better and cheaper they are than silicon-based chips.

Luk cited the battle between Beta and VHS more than 20 years ago as an example. “”Beta is better, but everyone used VHS even though they knew Beta was better,”” Luk said.

He added it is a simple case of standards over technology innovation.

“”Standards always overtake technology.””

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Paolo Del Nibletto
Paolo Del Nibletto
Former editor of Computer Dealer News, covering Canada's IT channel community.

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