Diamonds were in demand this Valentine’s Day for romantic reasons, but the U.S. military is interested in the synthetic version of this gem all year round for entirely different use.
While American defense companies may not be in the jewelry business, defense sector giants like Raytheon (NYSE:RTN) are certainly exploring the potential of this quintessential gem for defense applications.
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Laboratory-grown diamonds, when combined with semiconductor gallium nitride, have very promising potential to be an essential component to next generation radar, communications and electronic warfare systems. Research suggests that it is possible to get more power and see farther with diamonds- making them a potent defense asset.
Defense Diamond Mines
The Integrated Air Defense Center is known for producing some of Raytheon’s signature products like the Patriot air and missile defense system.
Those based in Boston may be surprised to learn that a mere twenty miles just outside of the city is a proverbial defense diamond mine quietly tucked away in this very same facility.
Raytheon’s “diamond mine” might not be able to offer you an engagement ring, but it can grow synthetic gems with the potential to save huge amounts of electricity, space and fuel for the defense customer.
In a fitting tribute to the beloved animated diamond miners, the company says their own diamond lab workers once adorned the walls with a poster of Disney’s Seven Dwarfs with a sign that read “Diamonds ‘R’ Us.”
How are synthetic diamonds made?
The company’s first diamond reactor was the humble kitchen microwave oven. These days production has amped up and the company now uses an industrial microwave reactor at Raytheon’s diamond lab.
Engineers first pump microwaves into metal reactors filled with hydrogen and methane. The gases are heated into a” glowing green ball of plasma.” Diamond crystals begin to form from the methane’s carbon and the crystals collect on a metal plate.
To grow a disc of the highest quality diamond about five inches wide takes about a month.
To accelerate the growth process, they spray the metal plate with diamond “seeds.”
Scientists debate about how long it takes for natural diamonds to be made, but it is generally agreed that, for the most part, diamonds do not grow in the earth in a continuous process, but instead respond to shifts in temperature and pressure and other conditions.
According to the Smithsonian, most natural diamonds are a couple billion years old, but there are younger diamonds, like those from the Kimberlite, that may be just tens of hundreds of millions of years old.
Raytheon’s brand spanking new diamond plates are grown in a range of sizes and workers polish the diamond disc using even more diamonds. The final step is to use lasers to cut the diamond into the required shapes and sometimes this means thousands of chips. Raytheon can even put jewelry-grade diamonds in their reactor and double their size.
In April of last year, DARPA awarded Raytheon with an 18 month, $1.8 million contract to develop next-generation Thermally Enhanced Gallium Nitride (TEGN). This technology involves gallium nitride devices bonded to diamond substrates. It aims to improve the capability of devices to handle power by a whopping at least three times. Gallium nitride components can emit five times the radio energy of the conventional gallium arsenide technology.
Developing this technology will hopefully lead to making more affordable, smaller, lighter and more powerful and efficient radar, electronic warfare and communications systems as well as other products. It is hoped radars, jammers and communications gear could all be revolutionized by this new gallium nitride technology.
Given diamond conducts heat better than most materials, including even highly conductive metals like copper, it is its thermal conductivity quality that is particularly attractive to militaries.
Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems Advanced Technology Programs technical director Colin Whelan explained “It enables more reliable systems with less weight and space, which translates into fuel savings and lower maintenance costs – saving money over the life of the system.”
By reducing thermal resistance, this new approach should enable state-of-the-art transistors and monolithic microwave integrated circuits to achieve far more potential.
From a defense perspective, it is rather ironic that diamonds are referred to as ice because it is the gem’s talent for cooling that also makes it attractive to the military customer.
Gallium nitride components create massive amounts of heat that need to be conducted away. To improve cooling, Raytheon’s new generation of gallium nitride devices bonds them to diamond pieces.
Diamond is an essential component for this advance because it is a superb replacement for conventional heat spreaders. Bonding the components to diamonds or other advanced materials is a smart way to spread heat.
Raytheon’s diamonds have already successfully penetrated the electronics market and even the beyond earth markets by participating in instruments for the Spirit and Opportunity rovers underway for Mars exploration.
In an era of fiscal austerity and looming defense sequestration, this diamond-enabled technology allows customers to fit higher performance radars into current U.S. military planes and ships.
Allison Barrie is an English law qualified lawyer who has practiced for two international law firms. Her deal experience includes oil & gas, large-scale cross border M&A, corporate finance and banking. Upon moving into defense, Allison has looked at risk and resilience issues, emergency preparedness and threat forecasting for Fortune 500 companies.