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The technology of growing single-crystal diamonds has now become industrial in nature

29 april 2019

aleksandr_koliadin_xx.pngIt is believed that the reserves of natural diamonds will be exhausted by the middle of the century, and therefore production of synthetic diamonds is rapidly gaining relevance. According to Business Insider India’s estimates, the global synthetic diamond market will be worth $ 28.26 billion in 2024 as a result of growing demand for cutting, polishing and drilling operations.

As it was reported by Rough&Polished, New Diamond Technology, LLC based in St. Petersburg “made a breakthrough in the world history of diamond growing having produced a single-crystal diamond type Ib weighing 103.50 carats" in December 2018. The company achieved this result using the method of high pressure and high temperature (HPHT) and caused another sensation by manufacturing a polished diamond weighing 20.9 carats from a single-crystal rough diamond weighing 55.94 carats grown in November 2018.

Aleksandr Koliadin, Dr. Sci. (Eng.) and CEO of New Diamond Technology, sat with Rough&Polished to talk about the activities and future plans of his company.

Can you walk us through the establishment history of New Diamond Technology?

The company was established in 2014, when it was given the rights to use the results of a successful investment project (startup) of Russia-based INREAL, Ltd. to create new technologies for growing large and very large single-crystal diamonds of various types for jewelry and technical applications (diamond electronics, optics, medicine, tool and drilling industries). At the root of these technological solutions there were the Company’s specialists and top managers including Dr. Sergey Ivahnenko, Dr. Andrey Katrusha, Dr. Aleksandr Koliadin, Tamazi Khikhinashvili, Roman Koliadin and Rroman Isakov.

How did you come into this business?

My experience with superhard materials - cubic boron nitride - began in 1978, and I started to work with diamonds first-hand since 1992. Much time was devoted to the processing of natural diamonds, the field in which I got engaged in 1995 at the company I created, INREAL. We analyzed the possibilities of using natural diamonds both in the jewelry industry and in industrial areas, and it became clear that the diverse defect-impurity composition of natural diamonds does not allow them to be widely used in technical areas. It is possible to make a unique sensor from a natural diamond, but it is impossible to clone it, since there are no crystals having the same properties in nature. Such opportunities arise when diamond crystals are grown, when their morphology and impurity-defect composition, which determines their properties, can be controlled. As a result, diamond plates, lenses, anvils, and other products or devices having the same properties can be mass-produced from grown crystals. It should be noted that the requirements for technical characteristics of single-crystal diamonds used in industrial applications are much more stringent than for manufacturing polished diamonds.

What problems have you encountered?

The main problems in growing single-crystal diamonds using the HPHT method are in maintaining the technological parameters of growing (pressure and temperature) with high accuracy over a long time - more than two weeks according to an established law, as well as in ensuring chemical purity and stability in the properties of materials used for container parts. Very important is the ability of the equipment and processing facilities used to maintain out-of-limit modes of operation for a long time.

How was the technology created? And how does it differ from other approaches?

In the process of developing highly efficient technological solutions, our team had to master several different types of pressing equipment, ranging from Toroids and BARSes to the latest know-how of the Chinese industry - cubic presses of models 850 and 950, i.e. the most powerful pressing equipment for the synthesis of superhard materials today. The main merit of INREAL was to overcome the five-carat limit for growing single-crystal diamonds (which could not be surpassed for more than 30 years) by creating multi-seed technologies for simultaneous high-speed growing of several crystals with a mass exceeding 10 carats each. At the same time, the crystal growth rates were increased from 1-2 mg / hour to 40 mg / hour. The impressive results of INREAL gave a strong impetus to the Chinese diamond industry, which has a huge fleet of similar pressing equipment, in developing its own technologies for growing single-crystal diamonds. It also stimulated the rapid development of another technology for growing crystals - graphite deposition from the gas phase (the CVD method). For five years, NDT has improved and obtained new technological processes for growing particularly large single-crystal diamonds, thus becoming the world’s leader and record holder. The company managed to overcome the 100-carat frontier by growing a crystal weighing 103.4 carats. The company also owns world records for producing the largest polished diamonds ranging from 10 to 20 carats each.

What is your view on the problem of natural and synthetic diamonds? There are people and companies who are frightened by the term "synthetic diamonds" and who talk about their "threat".

The technology of growing single-crystal diamonds has now become industrial in nature, since the Chinese diamond industry, which has a huge fleet of press equipment originally set up to manufacture diamond powders and polycrystal diamonds, has begun to deal with this issue. In addition, factories growing CVD-diamonds started to pop up in China and in India like mushrooms. Indirectly, this was facilitated by De Beers’ announcement in the spring of 2018 that it was going to build the largest factory for growing single-crystal diamonds and that its subsidiary, Lightbox was to enter the market. On the one hand, they protect their main business (mining of natural diamonds) due to a sharp decrease in prices for grown diamonds, and on the other hand, this produced an effect similar to “letting the genie out of the bottle”: after a short pause and thinking about what will happen next , a large number of polishing factories rushed to process the so-called "synthetics". This was facilitated by the fact that over the past five years, the cost of producing single-crystal diamonds belonging to the sieve class of "-3" (up to 1.5 mm in size) was reduced by almost an order of magnitude - from $100-80 to $15-10 per carat. Currently, several of the largest Chinese diamond factories are using about two thousand presses to grow single-crystal diamonds and their monthly output of small diamonds reaches 250,000-300,000 carats. The bulk of these diamonds is supplied to polishing factories in India. At the same time, the number of larger single-crystal diamonds up to 10 carats in weight begins to increase. So far, there are not so many large diamonds produced, but the dynamics of this process shows that within a year or two every second small polished diamond will be a lab-grown diamond. This is due to several reasons, both technical and economic. First, this is the result of bringing the diamond-growing technologies to a higher level. And secondly, taking into account the crisis in the diamond cutting industry, India’s diamond cutting factories view it as an economically viable mechanism for their survival due to a sharp decrease in their working capital needed to purchase rough diamonds and also due to a slight difference in the cost of small natural and lab-grown diamonds having the same quality. 

Assembling Cubic Press 850                                                                  Image credit: New Diamond Technology

There is terminological confusion: synthetic, cultured, imitation stones, lab-grown diamonds. What kind of diamonds do you grow?

Currently, there are several accepted terms to designate grown diamonds: lab-grown diamonds, man-made diamonds or created diamonds. From my point of view, the most correct term is “HPHT-grown diamonds” or “CVD-grown diamonds”, since the term “laboratory-grown” has exhausted itself: diamonds are now being grown on an industrial scale at very large diamond factories. In addition, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission does not recommend using the term “synthetic” to describe lab-grown diamonds, as it confuses consumers.

Artificial diamonds are produced in China and India, where the highest rates of production growth are observed, also in Singapore and the United State, where their production is rather stable, as well as in Russia, where we see rather high-quality diamonds made by the НРНТ method. How are your diamonds different?

When we started growing nitrogen-free single-crystal diamonds, naturally, we grew small crystals of 0.1-0.5 carats in order to develop the growing modes. We tried various designs and materials for containers, various technological methods, studied the influence of external parameters of energy and climatic parameters, because the correctly chosen pressing equipment is only half of success. To grow a high-quality single-crystal diamond, you also have to ensure the stability, accuracy and controllability of a large number of internal and external process parameters, which is far from being a trivial task. This required the development and manufacture of a whole complex of electronic systems for maintaining and managing such parameters. After breaking a large number of equipment and having understood the basic laws of the growing process on cubic presses, we consciously began to move in the direction of growing large and very large crystals (10-100 carats), since this allows producing large polished diamonds (from 2-4 to 20 carats) and large substrates (from 10 mm to 3/4 inch) for the electronics industry. Doing this, we do not compete with major producers of small and medium single-crystal diamonds (up to 10 carats). We also managed to create technologies that allow growing single-crystal diamonds with minimal breaks in their crystal lattice (the dislocation density is 102-105), which is especially important for diamond substrates and the subsequent deposition of high-quality epitaxial layers, as well as for seed matrices to grow defect-free single-crystal diamonds using the CVD method.

And what amount of synthetic diamonds are you producing and going to produce?

At present, we produce from five to seven thousand carats of rough diamonds per month, the size of which is +10 carats, which makes about 450 stones per month. If a year earlier some part of the rough up to 10 carats was sold, now all the rough we are making is completely processed at our operations.

We are faced with a difficult task of increasing our output several times, so the amount of diamond substrates must be increased by an order of magnitude. This can be achieved by improving the technology and using larger fitments and containers. We look at it with optimism, because only due to the improvement of technology over the past four years, the volume of grown single-crystal diamonds has been increased threefold.

What kind of consumers are your products intended for?

Now we produce diamonds from 1-2 carats to the maximum possible size. The largest polished diamond produced by our company weighed 20.22 carats. Our products, to a greater extent, are designed for jewelry companies of the luxury segment. Periodically, we also grow unique single-crystal diamonds from customer-supplied graphite, for example from graphite obtained from wood and leather of unique cars, then we produce polished diamonds from such lab-grown stones to inlay cars and make jewelry for their owners.

Amazing. Is it for marketing purposes?

Yes, these are all marketing things - there are companies that grow diamonds from graphite of burned rose petals. We are interested in some unique versions of graphite or container materials, for example, lunar soil or coal raised from Titanic (Romain Jerome watch company). There are other interesting options of raw materials, for example, the grass from football fields or golf courses of famous clubs, etc.

Yes, there is a lot of space for invention. Do you interact with any of your peers producing lab-grown rough and polished diamonds? Is there some kind of association? As, for example, the association of manufacturers producing natural diamonds.

Yes, at the beginning of 2016, a group of leading producers established the International Grown Diamond Association (IGDA). NDT led by its President Tamazi Khikhinashvili together with Singapore-based IIa Technologies’ CEO Vishal Mehta were among the main founders of this association. The goal of IGDA is to create a global platform that correctly represents and promotes lab-grown rough and polished diamonds.

What do you think about the interaction, or more precisely, the coexistence of synthetic and natural diamond markets?

Indeed, these two markets coexist and have a strong influence on each other. The market for lab-grown diamonds has the same seasonality as the market for natural diamonds; so, respectively, some fall or rise in one of them affects the other, but the market for lab-grown diamonds is more dynamic, it is developing faster and growing in gigantic strides. Higher production of lab-grown diamonds naturally leads to a decrease in their value. The market for natural diamonds is more conservative, since natural diamond production is practically not undergoing major changes; the new deposits (and they do exist) are not developed, since this requires huge investments. Therefore, more advanced technologies are being applied to extract natural diamonds, which includes the X-ray technology for careful recovery of large stones, and thus such diamond deposits become more profitable. Small- and medium-size polished goods made from lab-grown diamonds can so far be compared by their cost with natural diamonds based on Rapaport prices with significant discounts, but large lab-grown polished diamonds (over five carats) are sold at negotiated prices that may differ from their natural counterparts in price by several times, while colored diamonds - by several orders of magnitude.

Galina Semyonova for Rough&Polished