Nitrogen doped diamond crystals open up many possibilities
Diamonds - highly desirable lumps of carbon. But while their use to jewellers is well known, their hidden secrets are being revealed by the DIADEMS project. By modifying the structure of a diamond crystal, the project creates a new material that could be used in applications, from the creation of smart medicines to the next generation computers. The EU project is helping Europe stay at the forefront of research into atomic scale sensors.
DIADEMS (DIAmond Devices Enabled Metrology and Sensing) project is replacing a single atom in a diamond crystal with one of nitrogen, known as 'doping'. By trapping nitrogen in the crystal, researchers can produce an atom-like structure with intrinsic magnetic properties obeying quantum mechanics.
'This means that we can ultimately create tiny sensors that detect small magnetic signals. For example, these magnetic signals would allow us to monitor the electrical activity of neurons on a diamond slide and see how they operate together,' explains Dr Thierry Debuisschert, project coordinator of DIADEMS, based at Thales, France. 'In the future, we may be able to see whether or not a neuron is responding to a chemical being used for treatment.' This outcome would benefit research into neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's. Life sciences, physics, chemistry - wherever magnetic fields play a role, DIADEMS' work could make a difference.
A world of applications opening up
The innovative ability to see how molecules react by reading changes in the spin of their electrons means researchers will be able to analyse exactly what is happening in chemical reactions at molecular and atomic scale. 'A wide range of applications start to appear because we are able to monitor so precisely,' says Debuisschert. Computing could benefit too as the sensors can be used in the development of small, high density storage discs with far greater capacity and reliability.
'The capacity of data storage discs is getting ever bigger, squeezing the size of the magnetic domains used to store the information. By working at the atomic and molecular level, we could be able to control those storage devices at the scale required for high density storage,' he adds.
Results for research
Debuisschert is fascinated by the combination of atomic physics and quantum mechanics and how it can yield practical applications. 'We are in an industrial context, so we have to show that there are real, marketable applications at the end of the research.' The fact that DIADEMS is using lab grown diamonds working at room temperature means once ready, its technology will be easier to apply and market. 'Even so,' says Debuisschert, 'since we are still at a research level, EU funding at this stage is indispensable.'
The benefits of working at EU level
While the project would not exist without the EU funding, Debuisschert feels a particularly important aspect of an EU-wide project is the collaboration between the 15 partners with a mix of academic and industrial partners. 'We can be directly informed of all recent results coming out of EU labs, which saves a lot time, and we can share ideas in a way that is specific to European projects,' he explains. 'This helps us stay competitive in comparison with the big competitors abroad.' The project which runs for four years, kicked off in September 2013. It is backed by EU support, via the Future and Emerging Technologies scheme, to the tune of EUR 6 million.