Turning diamond into metal

Ju Li and other researchers have discovered a way to tweak tiny needles of diamond in a controlled way to transform their electronic properties, dialing them from insulating, through semiconducting, all the way to highly conductive, or metallic. This can be induced dynamically and reversed at will, with no degradation of the diamond material.

The team used a combination of quantum mechanical calculations, analyses of mechanical deformation, and machine learning to demonstrate that the phenomenon, long theorized as a possibility, really can occur in nanosized diamond. 

Key to this work is a property known as bandgap, which essentially determines how readily electrons can move through a material. This property is thus key to the material’s electrical conductivity. Diamond normally has a very wide bandgap of 5.6 electron volts, meaning that it is a strong electrical insulator that electrons do not move through readily. In their latest simulations, the researchers show that diamond’s bandgap can be gradually, continuously, and reversibly changed, providing a wide range of electrical properties, from insulator through semiconductor to metal.

“We found that it’s possible to reduce the bandgap from 5.6 electron volts all the way to zero,” Li says. “The point of this is that if you can change continuously from 5.6 to 0 electron volts, then you cover all the range of bandgaps. Through strain engineering, you can make diamond have the bandgap of silicon, which is most widely used as a semiconductor, or gallium nitride, which is used for LEDs. You can even have it become an infrared detector or detect a whole range of light all the way from the infrared to the ultraviolet part of the spectrum.”

The research, though still at an early proof-of-concept stage, may open up a wide array of potential applications, including new kinds of broadband solar cells, highly efficient LEDs and power electronics, and new optical devices or quantum sensors, the researchers say.

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