S'pore firm shines with lab-grown diamonds

For their brilliance, diamonds are an object of adoration, but they are also known to have funded civil wars in African nations, resulting in what are labelled as conflict diamonds or blood diamonds.

Attempts to address the contentious issue have been made over the years, notably by growing top- quality diamonds in a laboratory.

A Singapore company has become one of the latest players in this niche industry.

Professor Devi Shanker Misra, chief technology officer at IIa (pronounced "2a") Technologies, has been growing top-grade diamonds in a lab, after eight years of research.

The cultured gems supposedly have the same composition, structure and physical properties as traditionally mined diamonds.

Earlier this month, IIa Technologies' sister company based in the United States, Pure Grown Diamonds, announced for sale a 3.04-carat brilliant-cut diamond at a price of US$23,012 (S$30,260) - about 30 per cent lower than the market price of mined diamonds.

The near colourless rock is currently on tour in the US and will be put up for sale on its website next month.

The technology behind lab-grown diamonds can be explained simply as "growing diamond from diamond".

IIa Technologies' method involves a patented process called Microwave Plasma Chemical Vapour Deposition (MPCVD), where a diamond seed placed in a "diamond-growing greenhouse" is exposed to a carbon-rich environment.

Diamond seeds are crystals of diamonds which can be either mined or grown in a lab.

The greenhouse is fed with methane and hydrogen gases before electromagnetic waves of very high frequency are applied.

A plasma or a "glowing ball of fire or energy", about 5cm in diameter, is then formed and the natural crystallisation process takes place as the carbon molecules deposit over the diamond seed.

It takes about six to 10 weeks to grow a diamond before it is cut and polished.

Diamonds produced by IIa Technologies for the luxury sector are certified by the International Gemological Institute as grade IIa, a quality found in only 2 per cent of mined diamonds.

Most of the mined diamonds are type Ia, which contain 3,000 parts per million (ppm), or 0.03 per cent, nitrogen impurities.

The IIa diamonds grown in Prof Misra's lab contain very minimal or almost no impurities, with nitrogen impurities making up less than 1 ppm.

This sets them apart from diamonds made from human ashes, for example, which contain impurities like calcium phosphorous found in bones.

Prof Misra, 59, who has a PhD in physics from the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, became interested in growing quality diamonds about 20 years ago.

He helped set up IIa Technologies, located in Tukang Innovation Drive in Jurong, in 2005, after a chance meeting with the Mehtas - an Indian family which has been in the jewellery business for many generations.

Prof Misra met members of the Mehta family in 2001 and they shared their knowledge, industry experience and "financial capabilities". The Mehtas also invested in the business. Today, IIa Technologies is helmed by Mr Vishal Mehta, who is the chief executive.

IIa Technologies is not the first company to grow diamonds in a lab. Other earlier players include private firms Element Six and Scio, headquartered in Luxembourg and the US respectively.

The first person to report the growing of a large diamond using MPCVD is said to be Dr David Mao - an expert in high-pressure science who is from Taiwan and based in the US - in 2006, according to Professor Shen Zexiang from the School of Physical and Mathematical Sciences at Nanyang Technological University.

Type IIa diamonds are scarce, so any amount of them that are found naturally in mines would have gone into the making of jewellery, which tends to fetch better prices.

This leaves few of the quality rocks for use in scientific and industrial applications, such as in devices like X-ray detectors or diamond knives for cataract surgery.

Lab-grown diamonds have changed all that.

In September, IIa Technologies created large 7.5mm by 7.5mm diamond crystal plates that can be made into radiation detectors used in cancer treatment. Such plates are expected to outlast those made of silicon-based materials, by about 100 to 200 times.

Prof Misra also has an ongoing project with the National University of Singapore to explore how grown diamonds can be used to indicate the amount of radiation targeted at tumours during radiation therapy.

IIa Technologies declined to reveal its annual production figures but said output has grown at an average of 50 per cent over the past three years. It expects this to be consistent over the next three years. R

evenue for the year ended in March this year was US$70 million.

Trainer for gemology Loke Hui Ying, from the Far East Gemological Institute, said while lab-grown diamonds may be structurally similar to naturally mined diamonds, they ultimately differ in terms of value.

"You can grow diamonds in a lab 24 hours a day, but diamonds which are naturally grown and mined take millions of years," Ms Loke added.

So would cultured diamonds influence market supply and pricing in the overall diamond industry?

Prof Shen said if high-quality diamonds can be grown in the lab cheaply, prices of high-grade diamonds in general will come down.

When asked about his influence on supply and pricing, now that he can grow top-grade diamonds, Prof Misra said the growth of highest- quality and purity diamonds is decided by the laws of physics and chemical kinetics.

No one as yet can grow the highest-quality diamonds in large numbers at will and therefore Prof Misra did not see the price barrier breaking in the near future.

"The growth process is still a natural crystallisation process. I can't make it any faster."

'A THIRST FOR SCIENTIFIC TRUTHS'

Professor Devi Shanker Misra, 59, is the chief technology officer at IIa Technologies, a Singapore-based company that specialises in grown diamond technology.

He oversees the research on developing diamond solutions for high-end scientific and industrial uses such as diamond-based quantum applications and high-quality diamond plates for designing high-power devices.

Prof Misra is married to 55-year-old Poonam Misra, a housewife, and they have two children. Their daughter, Disha, 27, works for Intel Corp in Santa Clara in the United States, while their 28-year-old son, Nirdesh, works in the research and development department at IIa Technologies.

When asked, Prof Misra said that he has given lab-grown diamonds to his daughter and wife as gifts. Both women own and wear only lab-grown diamond jewellery, he added.

Prof Misra's love for physics, a subject he describes as being "very close to (his) heart", started at the age of 17.

He earned a doctorate in physics from the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur and spent three years in Britain, before joining the teaching faculty at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay in 1991.

Research was the "strongest motivator" which eventually led to him joining IIa Technologies full-time in 2010.

An avid reader, Prof Misra enjoys learning about Indian history and various religions.

His passion for reading was instilled in him by his mother, whom he described as a "wonderful woman of very deep thought and simple life".

"The origin of religions and their significance in people's lives have always fascinated me," said Prof Misra.

"I believe this has inculcated in me also... an unquenchable thirst for exploring the truth in a scientific way."

kcarolyn@sph.com.sg

This article was first published on Dec 21, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.