Diamonds may be forever, but they soon could change the way we power electronics by cutting e-waste, conserving water and fighting climate change.
Today, semiconductors usually are made of silicon, which, when disposed of as e-waste, poisons children, pollutes water and releases substances like lead and methane into the jetstream.
The word “semiconductor” refers to any member of a class of solid, crystalline materials that is characterized by an electrical conductivity better than that of insulators, such as plastics, but less than that of good conductors, like copper. Semiconductors are particularly useful as a base material in the manufacturing of computer chips, as well as for military, automotive, industrial, communications and other consumer purposes.
As the world increasingly becomes digitalized, the semiconductor industry is one of the fastest growing manufacturing sectors in the world. Semiconductor technology is ubiquitous in application and high speed and high power devices and materials are in high demand in the telecommunication, power electronics, and solar inverter consumer electronics, automotive, aerospace and military/defense industries. But a more sustainable electronics industry may depend on changing the fundamental component of superconductors.
“Current silicon systems require tremendous cooling where half the energy utilized in data servers goes to cooling, which takes on the form of convection cooling fans, heat sinks, and complex packaging materials, all forms of electronics waste,” Adam Khan, founder and CEO of AKHAN Semiconductor, told Sustainable Brands.
“And because of the large volume of e-waste produced and because these materials aren’t easily recycled, they are largely incinerated in underdeveloped regions of the world, releasing copious volumes of cadmium, lead, and greenhouse gases into the global Jetstream.”
Khan said that silicon still accounts for nearly 95 percent of all semiconductor electronics use largely due to the tremendous historical investments in capital equipment, material process research and intellectual property.
“Because the alternative materials require different equipment and cannot readily be integrated with the standard silicon processes, investments have not been made into adoption, despite proposed performance increases,” he said.
That’s why AKHAN has developed a method that allows for direct integration of diamond within the standard silicon semiconductor process, so that the efficiencies and performance gains of diamond can be utilized without wasting the existing investments in silicon all while reducing and removing the need for e-waste contributing cooling components.
Beyond the limits of silicon
Silicon has been the material of choice for most semiconductor applications, however, the limits of silicon’s capabilities have nearly been reached, according to Akhan. Silicon material performance begins to severely degrade at high device temperatures, but increase in demand and operational performance of devices has forced a reduction in device size, seeking higher power output in a higher temperature working atmosphere. In other words: as our devices shrink, silicon becomes less effective as a semiconductor.
“The prospect of diamond semiconductor devices has long enthralled the global community,” Akhan said. “With exceptional material attributes such as the ability of diamonds to conduct heat far surpasses that of materials used on current electronics. It also has the unique ability to isolate massive voltages with a small fraction of the material required compared to present technologies.”
However, due to the perceived high costs and technological problems associated with diamonds have prevented diamond-based semiconductors from proliferating.
Better for the environment
Historically, heat management with silicon semiconductor devices has proven problematic for power electronics. The cooling methods required were inefficient and served as a major source of e-waste.
Diamond-based semiconductors enable electronic devices which are smaller, cooler, faster, more powerful and cleaner. Likewise, as fewer devices are needed per unit area to accomplish the same function, less processing is required for the same performance — lowering water requirements for batch processing and reducing the amount of waste-water produced.
“Diamond is unmatched in its ability to diffuse heat, perform as a semiconductor, and create smaller and more powerful electronics,” Akhan said. “Until now, we've been constrained by the physical limitations of silicon, but the ‘Diamond Age’ begins here.”
Akhan said AKHAN’s new process of manufacturing perfect diamonds out of methane gas lifts the barrier of affordability in diamond-based electronics, which can nurture new technological advancements in major core industries.
While the use of diamonds might conjure images of blood diamonds in developing countries, AKHAN uses only lab-grown diamond processes and materials — which could help reduce the electronics industry’s conflict mineral problem.