Electronics are made with silicon and metal oxides, but there are environments in which a typical microchip will fail. To handle the more extreme environments — high radiation, cold down to minus 300 degrees (Fahrenheit) or up to 900 degrees — diamond may be the way to go.
A team of electrical engineers at Vanderbilt University has developed the components needed to make microelectronic devices out of nanometer-thick (thin!) films of diamond. The transistors and logic gates are the same as in silicon-based devices. But because they're made of diamond, they can do things that silicon chips can't and avoid some of the problems traditional designs have.
In nanodiamond, electrons move through a vacuum between the components, instead of flowing through solid material the way they do in typical devices. That reduces the amount of heat generated because there are no atoms for the electrons to bump into. This also means that the transmission is more efficient, requiring far less current to run the circuit. Diamonds are fantastic electron emitters, so creating the beam of electrons between components requires less power.
Another big plus is radiation: in space, for example, lots of ionizing radiation can make chips in satellites fail, and replacing them is an expensive business. But since the nanodiamond is transmitting electrons though a vacuum, there's no way for the flow to be disrupted and the circuit "tripped." When radiation or charged particles hit the diamond the disruption is there, but it is much reduced.
Given that the nanodiamond operates in a vacuum, manufacturers will have to come up with a way to package the circuits, but to an extent that is done already — many microchips are packaged with inert gases, or plastic. The Vanderbilt team found that military-grade metallic seals seem to be a good bet.
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