For the past decade, UTD professor Orlando Auciello has been obsessed with growing diamonds. But instead of trying to create the biggest gem possible, he’s been trying to craft the thinnest possible layer of diamond. This thin coating could advance everything from hip implants to hydraulic pumps.
Coating a metal hip implants and heart pumps with diamond may sound like a trend for the rich and famous, but the technology could actually be a money – and life saver.
“Because diamonds are forever!” Dr. Orlando Auciello says.
Unlike titanium or steel, diamond doesn’t break down from wear and tear. It’s smooth and safe for use inside the human body. But until Auciello’s research, which began at Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago, artificial diamonds have been hard to synthesize in thin film form.
Growing Diamond In The Lab
Inside a lab at UT Dallas, Auciello shows off a large stainless steel vacuum machine where he grows his super thin diamond film, called ultrananocrystalline diamond – or UNCD for short. The silver machine looks like a shiny device in a futuristic submarine. And inside, the ingredients to make diamonds.
“Methane, argon and a little bit of hydrogen,” Auciello says.
Once the ingredients are mixed, it’s time to cook.
“We pass current through the wire and we heat it up to about 2,000 degrees kelvin.”
When the methane molecules hit the hot wire – more than 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit – they crack and produce the carbon needed to grow diamond. The grains of the diamond that form are tiny – five nanometers across – about a billion of them would fit inside one red blood cell.
The film, which grown on a silicon wafer looks basically like a mirror, is extremely smooth. Which is why Arciello says companies are using it to coat rotary equipment – like mechanical pumps and mixers.
“UNCD coated seals have much lower friction coefficient,” he says. “So it can reduce the torque needed to run the pump and the cost of running the pump.”
The coating is also resistant to chemical attack, and body fluids: Not even hydrofluoric acid— which you may remember from AMC’s drama Breaking Bad — breaks it down. And best of all for the field of medicine, it isn’t rejected by the human body.
Implants, And Beyond
The first UNCD coated medical product Auciello plans to produce is a dental implant with a lifespan, he says, ten times that of the metal-based ones used today.
The first UNCD coated medical product Auciello plans to produce is a dental implant with a lifespan ten times that of the metal-based ones used today. But stealth diamond grills are just the beginning. Auciello also hopes to use UNCD as a biomaterial for tissue engineering.
“This is a little bit of science fiction for now,” Aucielo says, “But the trip to the moon was science fiction we got there in 69 years.”
Auciello is co-founder of two companies commercializing UNCD, Advanced Diamond Technologies, Inc, and Original Biomedical Implants. In 2013, he was awarded for the sixth time an R&D 100 Award, also known as an Oscar of Innovation.
Too bad it isn’t coated in diamond.