Are Diamond Chips Real?

With the upcoming THL release of Penny Noyce’s “The Desperate Case of the Diamond Chip,” we’ve been hearing questions from people who wonder if diamond semiconductors are just science fiction or a metaphor of some kind.  Well, while our Galactic Academy of Science series is centered around the concept of time travel, which is indeed science fiction (at least for now), the underlying diamond chip mystery is founded in real modern science.

In the “Diamond Chip” book, students go back in time to learn about the origins of modern semiconductor science, studying chemistry, physics, some basic electronics, through to the creation of the Si chip (by Penny Noyce’s father, Robert Noyce, founder of Fairchild Semi and Intel) and onward through modern cutting edge materials science.  In their journey, they learn about the various creative thinking methods used by famous scientists from the past, to uncover important knowledge, building on prior knowledge, to create the modern microchip.  Microchips are the central component in most of the technology devices people are familiar with today – from computers to microwave ovens to cellphones to cars.  It seems that these gadgets get faster and better all the time.

This concept, that chips become faster in speed and performance, and smaller in profile, is known as “Moore’s Law”.  Gordon Moore, along with Penny’s father Robert Noyce, were among a handful of original engineers who took Robert’s Silicon chip and through Intel, helped to create Silicon Valley and ultimately created one of the largest global industries today.  Moore’s law stated that the number of transistors (the parts of the chip that make things happen) on a chip will double about every 2 years, thus making chips smaller, and progressively more powerful, at a faster and faster pace as time goes on.  Well, Moore’s Law, which was first stated in 1965, has largely held true, for the most part over many decades.  But in recent years, many scientists have begun to believe that Moore’s Law has hit a wall or may potentially need to be revised.  A number of scientists claim that the physical limitations of materials and perhaps even physics itself is being reached.

One of the biggest problems facing chips, and many other electronic products, is heat buildup.  As chips become hotter, computers or other devices which house the chips become hotter, and performance is degraded dramatically.  Heat causes chips to fail or perform incredibly slowly.  Outside of the difficulties in making smaller transistors, and finding new materials to protect the small circuits, heat has been a major factor in semiconductor industry changes in recent years.  Silicon, which is still after so many years the basis of all modern chips (or in some cases Gallium Arsenide or other exotic materials), has an inherent inability to remove heat.  Companies across the world are looking for alternatives to Silicon, for the future product roadmaps.  There are a number of materials now being explored, but one thing is certain, and has been known for many decades – diamond is not only durable and brilliant, but is one of the best materials in the world for thermal conductivity.

Work is currently being done by various companies on carbon based materials related to diamond such as “graphene” (which is quite similar to diamond in many ways) and other advanced materials as substrates, as well as materials on the inside of the chip, including “low K” materials (which act as insulators in the chip, protecting electrons from flying away into the Silicon and producing more heat and wasted electricity), among other things.

As this work is proceeding, companies are working in other areas to do their best to extend Moore’s Law; for instance, most companies are expanding the size of wafers more and more to make the production process more efficient, as transistor sizes become smaller and more densely packed together.  The industry is currently capable of making “features” or parts of the chip, like little transistors, under 20nm in size.  As a matter of fact, in a number of labs throughout the world these features can go even smaller (thousands of times smaller than Robert Noyce worked on, almost at the atomic level).  Many companies are also working to make chip architecture more efficiency by stacking chips together, or making “3D chips” – these are already in production and are expected to be a major source of industry growth in coming years; they extend Robert Noyce’s 2D ideas (which were not only novel at the time, but have kept the semiconductor industry going for half a century, and are still the same basic processing blueprints for how to make a 3D chip).

One possible next step in the future, to make chips both high speed and cooler at the same time, is doped synthetic diamond.  Diamond is considered quite possibly the “holy grail” of semiconductors; in fact there are now a number of companies out there looking into what is known as SOD (semiconductors on diamonds), although there are still a number of technical hurdles to overcome in order to make the concept commercially feasible.  Diamonds, for at least the past decade, have been in use in the production of most semiconductors, as an abrasive on the surface of giant pads, which polish Silicon wafers (in a process called CMP: chemical mechanical planarization).  Diamond was at one point extremely expensive (and natural diamonds from deep under the ground continue to be expensive), but in its synthetic form has become progressively cheaper and cheaper since the 1950′s when diamond synthesis first became possible.  Because of its superlative physical properties, diamond is already used in many laser applications, defense, aerospace, medical equipment and even consumer applications like LEDs (LED means Light Emitting Diode, which is basically a piece of semiconductor-like electronics that replaces light bulbs, making them brighter or last much longer without replacing – even up to 30 years; examples of LEDs are traffic signals / crossing signals, flat panel TVs and various types of car lights), nail polish (to make the polish last longer, without chipping), high end speakers (to make the high end sounds of tweeters more crisp, so you feel like you’re listening to a real symphony instead of a recording) and golf clubs (to make the golf balls go much further than just metal golf clubs) – to name a few.  Very tiny diamonds, nanodiamonds (10^-9 m in size) are now being considered for use in pharmaceutical drug delivery (so people who are sick can take medicine one time and it can last a long time instead of taking many pills every day, which they might sometimes forget) and even cosmetics (so the cosmetics last longer, keep their color, don’t smudge, and have more brilliance), among many other things.  Some of these diamond applications are based on thermal properties (diamond has the highest thermal conductivity in the world, because it is a very solid crystal which can transmit heat through waves, and not just particles), some for optical properties (diamond is the most clear, optically pure material in the world), some for hardness (diamond is the hardest material in the world, so it’s scratch proof), and also healthcare because diamond is made up entirely of carbon, and as such is completely compatible with human bodies, which are all carbon-based.

There are lots of new fields of diamond science popping up every day like diamond foams for high efficiency radiators (both to take heat away and to distribute more heat in a house or car), diamond-coated cookware to make food cook faster and more evenly, high efficiency diamond solar cells (some of which are 2-3x more efficient than Silicon in lab results), diamond “solid state lubricants” (which means that you can use diamond powder to replace motor oil which helps make machines move, and it lasts much longer without replacing), diamond you-name-it…  Perhaps someday, you or your children can find more applications for this wonderful material, and like what happened in “Silicon Valley”, a “Diamond Valley” may emerge and give birth to derivate industries and new computing innovations for decades to come…

One of the big problems facing new exotic materials is that they are often hard to produce in large sizes at a low cost; while there are many commercial tradeoffs between advanced materials such as graphene and diamond, researchers are at this very moment pursuing both options fiercely to advance technology, and will undoubtedly uncover many new and unexpected findings along the way.  While we do not know for certain whether or not there will be graphene chips, diamond chips or another type of carbon or non-carbon-based chip in the future, perhaps in the coming decades, we are certain that it is possible.  It is the possibility that is exciting – especially the possibility that perhaps children reading books from THL’s G.A.S. series, might become inspired to one day be the inventors of the enabling technology that allows these materials to be used.  That is our hope.

The featured picture of this blog is author and THL co-founder Barnas Monteith, along with colleague Dr. Michael Sung, standing in front of one of their diamond wafer coating machines.  Barnas and Mike (who met each other in high school at the International Science & Engineering Fair, and have remained friends ever since), previously founded a company in the field of diamond materials synthesis and semiconductor research, and for nearly a decade focused on thermal management and how best to use diamonds to make chips.  The work goes on…

The Desperate Case of the Diamond Chip debuts at the Taipei International Book Expo on Feb 1-6, 2012, at the Taiwan World Trade Center, with galleys / advanced reader copies available in both traditional character Mandarin Chinese, and English.