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Diamond mining and diamond synthesis: Which is more efficient?

21 november 2022

Vladislav Zhdanov - Professor at the National Research University Higher School of Economics and former Vice President of ALROSA (2015-2018).

He is a physicist by profession.

Vladislav Zhdanov was educated at the Ural Federal University (General and Molecular Physics), Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, City University London, Oxford University and RANEPA.

He has authored a number of scientific articles on the use of synthesized and natural diamonds in modern high technologies, on trends and prospects for their consumption in this area.

Vladislav Zhdanov told R&P about new academic research in the field of diamond mining and diamond synthesis.

vladislav_zhdanov_xxc.pngThe academic journal Heliyon published an article (“Comparative analysis of labor input required to produce one carat at different methods of synthesis and mining of diamonds”) by a team of authors led by Professor Vladislav Zhdanov of the Higher School of Economics. It analyzes in detail the labor costs for the production of one carat of diamond by three different methods - mining, HPHT and CVD.

Vladislav Zhdanov told the R&P agency about an academic study on a comparative analysis of resource costs in the production of diamonds.

In an interview given to our publication, you talked about the results of research on production costs in terms of energy and water needs (https://www.rough-polished.com/en/exclusive/123421.html). What is your take on labor costs, which are perhaps the costliest part of the operating expenses in diamond production?

My colleagues and I took De Beers reporting and analyzed the operations of two unique diamond mines in Botswana - Orapa and Jwaneng - in terms of the number of personnel directly involved in mining. After that, we correlated the number of personnel with the volume of diamonds mined at these deposits. Of course, there is a significant element of approximation in this connected both with the uniqueness of these deposits in terms of their diamond grade and with the inevitable personnel turnover. Nevertheless, we came to the conclusion that working on these deposits each employee produces on average more than 2 carats of diamonds per hour, and by this indicator mining exceeds synthesis, where similar indicators are much more modest.

Can you elaborate on this?

In particular, if we take the author's experimental data regarding synthesis by the CVD method, with many technological reservations about the characteristics of the magnetron (radiation source), synthesis conditions (temperature, pressure, composition of the gas mixture), the quality of the resulting single crystals, etc., then we come to the conclusion that each laboratory assistant needs more than three hours to synthesize one carat of diamonds, and this figure differs significantly from mining operations. I’ll make a reservation right away that it is precisely in terms of estimating the labor costs for synthesis by the CVD method that we had the main disputes with experts. Some producers of CVD reactors claim a performance greater than our experimental one, and we understand the debatable character of our results, which are somewhat more modest than those of our colleagues.

Figure 1. CVD process, author's drawing, May 2022

What are your results on HPHT - the process that is the main synthesis method - at least in terms of production volumes?

Figure 2. HPHT press, author's drawing, May 2022

There is no doubt that HPHT having long overcome all infantine technological diseases is today the most efficient synthesis method in terms of labor costs. Very roughly, it takes less than two hours on average for an HPHT production worker to synthesize 1 carat of gem-quality diamonds, and this indicator will improve, that is, in our case, decrease in time. Press productivity is growing, technology is scaling up – everything is moving towards the fact that in the foreseeable future the relative labor costs of HPHT diamond synthesis and those of diamond mining will converge.

It turns out that CVD has no chance in this race?

You know, perhaps it would be appropriate to give a metaphor, sorry for the simplification: in terms of production mining, HPHT and CVD look like a train, an airplane and a rocket, respectively. Indeed, in terms of personnel required to service the process of transporting passengers / cargo, the railway beats any competitor, but the aircraft and especially rockets have super-advantages, which makes these types of transportation no less in demand. Returning to CVD reactors, this, of course, is an opportunity to better control the synthesis of a diamond crystal, create new structures based on diamond - for example, NV centers, and these mean quantum projects, a completely different application, not a jewelry market.

Do I understand correctly that the cycle of research has not yet been completed and your team still has materials for publication in academic journals?

The first two works, in the language of economists, are, of course, the main items of operating costs, OPEX - energy, water and personnel. The article that concludes our study is devoted to CAPEX, it is methodologically simpler, but perhaps the most significant for those readers who are interested in synthesis.

Again, we are comparing the relative costs of starting a diamond production, and it is clear that in absolute terms, the launch of a new mining and processing plant is a very big story, in contrast to the purchase of a CVD reactor. And it was interesting to compare the specific CAPEX for all three technologies.

Is it possible to announce your CAPEX results already?

Let's wait, we are now double-checking all the data. Synthesis technologies are developing very quickly, the price of hardware for synthesis is extremely dynamic. But at the first approximation, we again see the usual hierarchy of production technologies in terms of specific CAPEX – diamond mining would not give up.

After the release of the final article, we plan to publish a book summarizing everything we know about the production of diamonds. Going beyond the academic format will allow us to add more illustrations and "animate" the presentation of the material. I think the book will become a final point in this study, and we plan to involve more authors in its publication, whose data often differ from ours. But this will make it more interesting for readers.

May I ask you not a scientific, but a more applied question: What do you think about the future of diamond production? What are the prospects for mining and laboratory production - medium and long term?

Obviously, the synthesis of diamonds will develop - science needs new metamaterials, they cannot be obtained by mining, only by synthesis. In the medium-term perspective we will see HPHT presses with larger diameters and the initiating substrate of larger size for CVD synthesis – this will result in higher productivity. In the long-term perspective we will see a significant increase in the radiation power in CVD reactors, as there is room for growth here in the truest sense of the word. My colleagues and I modeled the distribution of plasma for high-power radiation sources, which is mathematically very interesting.

Figure 3. Array of CVD reactors, author’s sketches, May 2022

Besides, in our opinion, the potential for the synthesis of diamonds by the cavitation method has not yet been discovered, while this synthesis method is fundamentally different from HPHT and CVD - my colleagues and I are still at the stage of mathematical modeling, and I am sure that we are not alone in understanding the prospects for cavitation.

As for diamond mining, it will certainly not go anywhere - economically it has a large handicap in the jewelry segment and its technological potential for innovation is no less than in synthesis.


R&P also contacted the Deputy Director of the Institute of Applied Physics of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IAP RAS) (Nizhny Novgorod), Doctor of Physical and Mathematical Sciences Mikhail Glyavin, who commented on the results of the study by the research team led by Vladislav Zhdanov: “Our colleagues conducted a very useful, interesting and relevant study. It should be noted that synthesis technologies are constantly being improved. The use of microwave generators (Russian gyrotrons and their application are described in detail, for example, in the article by A. G. Litvak, G. G. Denisov and M. Y. Glyavin "Russian Gyrotrons: Achievements and Trends,” which may be found at https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/9318737) with a higher frequency than magnetrons, and original quasi-optical methods for forming a plasma discharge zone make it possible to increase the yield of the final product (diamonds) by almost an order of magnitude. Regarding the announced plans to increase the power, the IAP RAS has created continuous megawatt gyrotrons operating at frequencies from 28 GHz to 170 GHz, so there will be no problems with this. There is no doubt that CVD synthesis has good prospects and a great future.”

Galina Semyonova for Rough&Polished