Diamondoid: Next big thing in nanotechnology?

Here at Foresight we’ve been interested in nanotechnology based on diamondoid since the beginning, so it’s great to see these structures getting more attention. Someday they’ll be manufactured with atomic precision, in large structures, but for now even small structures are looking useful in today’s nanotech. Nanotechnology.com‘s August 17 Edigest, sponsored by PurpleGoldMedia, features an interview on what’s happening today with diamondoids. I’d like to link to it but can’t find it on their site, so here’s the whole interview for your reading pleasure. —Christine

Dr. Robert Carlson believes that diamond molecules will be a key enabling force for nanotechnology

Interview with Robert M. K. Carlson

Questions by Sander Olson. Answers by Robert M. K. Carlson

Dr. Robert Carlson is a consulting scientist with Chevron Technology Ventures. In 2003, Dr. Carlson discovered higher diamondoids, which are diamond molecules with many potential commercial applications. Chevron Technology Ventures formed a business unit called MolecularDiamondTechnologies in January 2003 in order to commercialize nanotechnologies based on diamondoids.

Tell us about yourself. What is your background, and on what projects are you currently working?

I have a PhD in biochemistry from Stanford, and I am currently a Consulting Scientist with Chevron Technology Ventures. I began at Chevron working on chemical fossils, which are complex organic compounds with structures indicative of their ancient biological origins. These fossil compounds are now widely used as natural tracers in petroleum exploration. My work on diamondoids grew out of that research. However, diamondoids are really the antithesis of chemical fossils, having structures that are distinctly non-biological, and with properties of great interest to materials scientists.

Tell us about MolecularDiamond Technologies. What are diamondoids?

Diamondoids are tiny fragments of pure hydrogen-terminated diamond, carbon clusters that are diamond molecules, and have a number of exceptional properties. Chevron Technology Ventures reported the discovery of higher diamondoids in the journal, Science in 2003. These higher diamondoids contain from four to eleven diamond crystal cages and are ~1 to 2 nm in size. For several decades, some of the best chemists tried to synthesize higher diamondoid molecules in the lab, and many concluded that their synthesis was inherently infeasible. However, we found that higher diamondoids occur naturally in petroleum deposits, and we first discovered them by accident while examining certain residues clogging our production equipment. We have developed methods for extracting higher diamondoids from oil. Higher diamondoid structures are remarkably rigid, extremely strong, and heat resistant, have a variety of nm sizes and shapes, and should be tremendously useful to many aspects of nanotechnology, including nanomaterials. In fact, nanometer-sized diamond structures have long been recognized as prized materials for such applications. We envision, for example, potential applications in the microelectronics, pharmaceutical, and optics industries resulting from higher diamondoids.

MolecularDiamond Technologies is part of Chevron Technology Ventures, and was specifically created with the goal of finding partners to develop and commercialize higher diamondoid technology. So we are focused on finding the right applications for higher diamondoids, and we are confident that numerous potential applications already exist and will become apparent in the next year or two.

What is the biggest technical hurdle to mass-producing diamondoids? How can this hurdle be overcome?

During the past few years, we have done extensive research on the processing of diamondoids, and we are increasingly disclosing this research. We currently know how to produce higher diamondoids, and mass-production would primarily involve enriching them, removing non-diamondoid deposits, and isolations of individual structures to high purity. We use distillation and hydroprocessing, skills that are core technologies in oil companies. We can currently produce quantities of higher diamondoids sufficient for research purposes, but we are confident that we can scale-up production as needed.

When will these the first commercially available products base on diamondoid technology become commercially available? What will these products be?

We aren’t entirely sure what initial commercial applications will emerge, but diamondoids have highly desirable electronic properties. We can derivatize them and bond them to other molecules and to surfaces. They are diamond molecules, but in many ways are more versatile than diamond in such applications. So they are highly customizable. In the pharmaceutical field, diamondoids could enable a new level of precision in drug design, they could prove useful to combinatorial drug discovery, and they could also improve diagnostic techniques. In the nanomaterials realm, they should facilitate the creation of new surface films and coatings with various applications. For microelectronics, higher diamondoids could enable nanometer-scale components, sensors, and field emission devices.

Are there any toxicity issues relating to exposure to diamondoids? Are there any environmental issues relating to its production or use?

There have been significant toxicity studies on lower diamondoids, which are similar molecules, and no toxicity was detected. We aren’t aware of any toxicity issues.

What are the intellectual property issues related to diamondoids?

We own a number of patents on a large group of higher diamondoids. These are new materials with many potential uses, and we were the first to identify them, prove their structures, and show how to isolate them. We have received these patents, and we also have patents related to higher diamondoid processing and certain applications. We have around 20 patents relating to higher diamondoids.

You have just formed a partnership with Stanford University to study the properties of diamondoids. Describe this collaboration.

We have just entered into a four year, $1.2 million agreement with Stanford University designed to explore the detailed electronic structures and self-assembly of diamondoids. The partnership with the Departments of Physics, Applied Physics, and Materials Science and Engineering will research self-assembled monolayers, and electronic properties. We are confident that patents and products will emerge from that partnership. We have collaborated with a number of other academic institutions, both foreign and domestic, and we are actively seeking other partnerships and commercialization opportunities.

What quantities of diamondoids can you currently create? How much do they cost?

We are currently producing gram quantities of higher diamondoids, which is adequate for research purposes. We could easily produce tens or hundreds of grams of higher diamondoids for product development. We can produce sufficient material both for research and for any product development needs. We anticipate that products incorporating higher diamondoids will be high-value products, and won’t require huge quantities of the diamond molecules. Regarding cost, we are currently producing small enough quantities that cost isn’t much of a factor. However, we can envision many ways to improve production and considerably decrease costs.

Is Chevron funding any other nanotechnology development programs?

Chevron is keenly interested in new and developing technologies, especially related to the energy business, and was perhaps the first major petroleum company to recognize the potential of nanoscience and technology. One could argue that our catalyst researchers, who have developed new classes of zeolites, have been working in nanotechnology for years. Here at MolecularDiamond Technologies, we are focused exclusively on diamondoids. Higher diamondoids are the only nanomaterials derived from petroleum.

Other than your own research, what excites you the most about small technology?

Nanotechnology is the next wave in technological development. Numerous experiments and a preponderance of research have shown that nanotechnology has the potential to be a disruptive technology. Governments around the world are aggressively funding nanotechnology, and it is clear that this will lead to all manner of commercial applications. We see higher diamondoids as an enabling tool for nanotechnology development.

How do you see this technology evolving over the next decade?

The strength, hardness, molecular rigidity and variety of nm-sized geometries of higher diamondoids make them very useful for microelectronics, among other applications, so I would predict that within a decade we may see integrated circuits incorporating diamondoids into their structures. Unlike carbon nanotubes, they have uniform dimensions and properties, and can be attached to other molecules and surfaces quite readily. That is a major advantage to these nanomaterials, and will help applications arise. I can foresee a situation, a decade from now, in which higher diamondoids are used in myriad applications.

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