Saturday, March 29, 2014

What is "Blingtronics?"

The term "Blingtronics" seems to have first appeared in the New Scientist article Geek chic: The rise of blingtronics from April 2010.  'Bling' comes from the noise we imagine light makes when it glints off of something shiny and expensive, diamonds, gold or platinum for example.  Diamonds aren't just great at being shiny though, they have a whole host of properties that would make them really great for a surprisingly wide range of electronic applications.  So diamond electronics (especially if we make electrical contacts to them out of gold - extra shiny!) is what I am calling here "blingtronics," in the hope that it will attract some well deserved attention to this potential electronic juggernaut of a material.

GIA certified diamonds
As if being really sparkly weren't enough! (

In the Blingtronics article, author Jon Cartwright tours a lab in the Centre for Nanoscience and Quantum Information at the University of Bristol, UK, and gives a nice overview of both some very interesting potential applications for diamond, as well as some of the problems researchers face when dealing with this extreme material.

In discussing an application for turning heat into power (by thermionic emission), Cartwright notes one of the difficulties is that it is notoriously difficult to introduce other materials into diamond.  The atoms are extremely densely packed, and if you damage diamond badly, for example by bombarding it with atoms, you can't easily repair it.  In silicon, on the other hand, it's a fairly simple process to introduce non-silicon atoms into the material, and then heat it to repair the damage.  Heating diamond, unless it's under an exceptional amount of pressure, will only turn it into graphite, which is the state that carbon would naturally form itself into under normal atmospheric conditions.  This is a huge problem for electronics applications, since virtually all of the applications for electronics involve carefully patterning regions where atoms are inserted with one more or one less electron, to make circuits and switches.  This difficulty with just getting the other atoms, called dopants, into diamond, is an ongoing issue in diamond electronics, which I will certainly discuss more in this blog.

Cartwright also discusses several other promising applications for diamond.  Quantum computing and optical circuitry are connected fields that both see diamond as the material of the future.  Diamond has a particular type of defect, where a Nitrogen atom, and an empty place where an electron should be, called a vacancy, form a Nitrogen-Vacancy, or NV center.  The NV center, when hit with certain kinds of light, emit bright red light.  These emitting centers could be used as the basic units of a quantum computer, or for imaging, for example, NV centers in very tiny diamond particles called nanodiamonds, which allow tracking of biological processes taking place, even in living cells.

Diamond is also biocompatible, a substantial advantage over other electronic materials, in that elaborate encapsulation isn't required to interface diamond electronics with living tissues, for example in retinal implants for the blind.   Nanodiamonds can also be used for other biological applications as well, like drug delivery for cancer treatment.

Diamond is an amazing material, but is not without challenges.  I look forward to describing some of the major advances in this field, and hope you look forward to learning more about the exciting field of blingtronics!

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