This startup wants to replace the silicon in your smartphone with diamonds

Akhan Semiconductor
Akhan Semiconductor
Chances are you’ve never heard of Akhan Semiconductor, but the company is well on its way to producing the hardware at the heart of your next smartphone, smartwatch, laptop, or virtual reality headset. The new components won’t only last longer and perform better than today’s tech, but their environmental impact will be much less severe, too. The big secret? Diamonds.

Instead of making processing chips out of silicon, Akhan is using jewelry’s favorite gem stone.

Why make processors out of diamonds?

Diamonds, it turns out, aren’t just the hardest mineral on the Mohs scale. They have a knack for transferring heat, and do a much better job of retaining energy compared to the silicon in most of today’s electronics. The minerals, on average, can run five times hotter and eliminate up to 90 percent of energy typically loss in the course of electron transfer.

“We’re the only company in the world that can create [these diamonds],” Carl Shurbof, Akhan’s chief of operations, told Digital Trends, “and we’re uniquely positioned to to create a new ecosystem.”

“We can create a wearable that … is completely flexible and can easily wrap around your wrist.”

The applications are practically endless. For consumer devices like the smartphone in your pocket, diamond could drastically reduce the amount of heat it produces. A diamond-made smartphone would be cooler against your face when you’re chatting with a buddy, for one, but could also last substantially longer. High temperatures wear aggressively at electronics, meaning that any reduction in heat has the potential to boost their lifespan.

Your phone could be thinner, too, since it wouldn’t need the temperature-regulating heatsinks and fans of silicon models. And as an added bonus, it might be faster — the newfound thermal headroom would allow phone makers to bump up performance.

Perhaps even more incredibly, diamond-based electronics could be cheaper than their silicon counterparts, Shurboff said. That is, again, because manufacturers don’t have to worry about keeping the devices cool.

But smartphones aren’t the only devices that stand to benefit. Electric car manufacturers like Tesla are targeting circuitry efficiency improvements of around 18 percent, a goalpost Shurboff said Akhan’s diamonds could easily exceed. The diamonds are tailor-made for heavy manufacturing and aerospace firms, which often require materials strong enough to withstand extreme radiation like x-rays.

“It’s both elegant and extremely high tech,” Shurboff said.

Digging for diamonds

Adam Khan, Akhan’s founder and chief executive, conceived of the idea in 2007 when he began pursuing the commercialization of diamond-based electronics. Khan, a graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago and Stanford University’s Fabrication Facility, is an electrical engineer by trade, so he sought to solve the two most imposing barriers to diamond mass production: deposition, the process of growing a layer of diamond on top a wafer-like base, and doping, or fine-tuning diamond’s electrical properties.

Khan got a leg up from colleagues, most notably scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory. Akhan inked intellectual property licensing agreements, which gave the company exclusive methods to create synthetic diamonds and use them to produce transistors, capacitors, and resistors — the components of modern-day computers.

The lab’s research dovetailed with one of Khan’s early breakthroughs: diamonds that stuck securely to conductive metals. The novelty was in the binding process. Khan figured out a way to reliably affix metals and alloys to diamond wafers without impacting either material’s conductivity. That discovery set the final cogs in motion toward Akhan’s end game: semiconductors — the essential component of electric circuits — made of diamond. He received a U.S. patent for the work in 2012.

Not your typical diamonds

Akhan’s diamonds aren’t the cut you might find on a Harry Winston tiara. Instead, Akhan’s Chief of Operations Carl Shurboff told Digital Trends, they’re designed expressly to percolate electrons around the insides of gadgets.

“When you say ‘diamond,’ everyone thinks mine diamonds or blood diamonds,” he said. “The idea of a semiconducting diamond is difficult to convey to the general public.” Unlike the diamonds extracted from subterranean tunnels in Siberia and Zimbabwe, Akhan’s are man-made and manufactured with methane — “the most abundant molecule in the universe,” Shurboff notes, a fact that helps the company keep costs well within reason.

To produce them, Akhan uses microwaves to heat a reactor filled with hydrogen, argon, and the aforementioned methane. Once the cycle finishes, the methane reaches a plasma state, taking on the consistency and appearance of a super-hot gas. The result: thin sheets of diamond material about 1/70 the diameter of a human hair. That is where the future starts.

Transluscent, bendable devices

More exciting than a smartphone with diamond in it is what lies on the horizon: translucent, bendable diamond devices. Akhan is working on flexible diamond semiconductors that can bend a full 45 degrees in any direction, which Shurboff thinks would be a boon for smartwatches and fitness trackers.

“People who bought smartwatches and are interested in styling don’t like how bulky and ugly they are, and so they don’t wear them,” he said. “We can create a wearable technology that can be transposed to anything you want, is completely flexible, and can easily wrap around your wrist.”

The diamonds aren’t going to sprout up overnight, of course. Akhan’s starting small, combining its diamond tech with traditional silicon for a clientele that skews largely industrial. Its new Gurnee facility, the product of a $5.5 million incentives package from the state of Illinois, began shipping chips in the first quarter of 2016. It’ll begin producing consumer-ready, all-diamond models in about two years.

And when it does, Shurboff said the environmental impact will be negligible. The company claims that its diamond semiconductors require 20 percent less water to produce than silicon, and that the devices without heat sinks and fans made newly possible by its chips will cut down on the roughly 85-90 percent thermal materials that end up in landfills. While Akhan currently sources methane from third-party suppliers, Shurboff said one future source could be pollution like the kind produced by cars.

“We’re working with high-caliber people and high-value partners,” he said. “It’s world-leading.”

It’ll be a while yet before Akhan gets a chip for the global semiconductor market, an industry worth an estimated $327 billion in 2016, but Shurboff is confident that diamonds will be a big competitor to silicon.

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