The age of diamond-powered cell phones could be close

Thin diamond coatings could be coming to next-generation electronics.

Elsa Wenzel
2 min read

Within the next decade, you might take calls and surf the Web on a diamond-laced handset that would put the iPhone to shame. Unlike high-end, gem-studded cell phones, no bling would sparkle on the shell. But inside, diamond-covered components would enable crisper, faster communications.

Advanced Diamond Technologies is bringing diamond down to size for potential usage in a vast array of products, including wireless phones and medical implants. The company announced last week that it can make the first diamond coatings ideal for use in microelectromechanical devices, such as "tuning forks" in cell phones. The grains in ADT's diamond films are nearly a billion times thinner than those used in industrial cutting tools and surgical scalpels, and they don't need to be polished.

"What we're trying to do is remove barriers to companies evaluating diamond," said Neil Kane, president of ADT. "It's still a young technology and I'm not trying to say it's equivalent to silicon, but we've removed one of the largest bottlenecks towards adoption."

The global market for radiofrequency chips in mobile phones alone could amount to $1.1 billion by 2010, according to Wicht Consulting in Germany.

The hardest natural substance on the planet, diamond resists heat and water and is biochemically inert, making it a natural fit for smart chips and surgical implants. Diamond glitters with potential, but until recently has been too costly to make a common ingredient in consumer electronics.

Yet prices are coming down as the manufacturing process speeds up. ADT can cultivate diamond films in a matter of hours. The spinoff of Argonne National Laboratory converts the carbon atoms in methane gas into diamond, which it then essentially spray-paints onto surfaces for a mirror-smooth finish.

The company is working with Argonne and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to create high-speed telecommunications devices. ADT's diamond coatings are also being explored for use in retinal implants that would restore sight to the blind.

And those gem-encrusted handsets? They could be cheaper in the coming decades, as more companies grow jewelry-ready, chunky diamonds in labs.