As University of Wisconsin biologists who pioneered embryonic stem cell work demonstrated, basic research can be enormously lucrative for the public institutions that pursue it. Not so in the case of national laboratories, however, where intellectual property faces a formidable gap between discovery and ready-for-primetime technology. But finding a new way to bridge the gap may turn out to be as big a contribution by researchers in the materials science division of Argonne National Laboratory as their nanoscale diamond film itself.
Synthetic diamonds were around long before Argonne physicists developed diamond coatings from spherical fullerenes, the 60-carbon allotropes also known as buckyballs. Chemical vapor deposition to create microcrystalline diamonds gave rise to several thin-film ventures in the early 1990s, but they were commercial failures. The lab in suburban Chicago pressed on with its work, developing plasma-enhanced chemical vapor deposition and other techniques to create 3-5 nanometer diamonds and manipulate their electronic conductivity, smoothness and thickness on thin films.
To conduct the applied research needed to make ultrananocrystalline diamond (UNCD) technology commercially useful, the lab incorporated Advanced Diamond Technologies Inc. in 2003. A partnership last year with John Crane Inc., a manufacturer of mechanical seals for centrifugal pumps and other equipment, yielded the first commercial product (see “Tech Update: Pumps,” Food Engineering, October 2007).
Advanced Diamond’s chief technical officer is John A. Carlisle, formerly an Argonne staff scientist. A native of Texas, he earned BS and MS degrees in physics at Texas A&M University before working on a doctorate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Carlisle did post-doctorate work at California’s Lawrence Livermore National Lab and was on the faculty at Virginia Commonwealth University before joining Argonne.
Carlisle: We place methane, hydrogen and argon in a reactor, excite the mixture to 2,500°C, then expose a substrate to be coated with diamond to the process. This results in a smooth, opaque film. When it’s studied under an electron microscope, you see 5-nanometer crystals and nothing else-no graphite impurities. By using different gas mixtures and process conditions, we’re able to alter the characteristics of the film being deposited.
FE: How far had the technology advanced at Argonne before your arrival?
Carlisle: Senior Scientists Dieter Gruen and the late Alan R. Krauss filed their first patent to use fullerene precursors for diamond synthesis in 1991. At that time, high pressure and graphite powder heated to about 1,500°C was producing 75 tons of industrial diamonds each year. It’s a messy process with a lot of soot flying around. A low-pressure method involving methane and hydrogen gas also existed for diamond-like films, but the films were either too rough or contaminated with traces of graphite, making them undesirable.
When scientists began to consider possible commercial applications for thin, smooth diamond films, mechanical pump seals immediately came up. In 1997, Argonne scientists made one seal that worked. They wrote a paper, declared victory and licensed the technology to Flowserve. But a scientist making one seal in the lab is of no value; you need to be able to make hundreds of thousands, and do it profitably. Flowserve said, “We can’t do this,” and no commercial seals were produced.
FE: When did your UNCD involvement begin?
Carlisle: I came to Argonne National Lab in August 2000 after Dr. Krauss died. From the start, I was embroiled in UNCD work. Every week, we received calls from major corporations like Intel who were interested in moving UNCD from a lab project into products that actually make money.
FE: How did you approach the technology-transfer challenge?
Carlisle: Because the technology wasn’t advanced enough to license it to a big company that would run with it, I suggested what universities long have done: Put the intellectual property into a start-up firm, and let it develop the technology. Most nanotechnology requires years of additional research before a workable product can be produced. For one year, beginning in August 2005, the Department of Energy allowed me to have what amounted to a conflict of interest, doing the basic research in the Argonne lab while incubating the technology development literally two steps away for Advanced Diamond Technologies (ADT). I had to develop a mechanism for monitoring my activities. In the process, we became the poster child for this type of transition.
FE: Why was a new technology-transfer model necessary?
Carlisle: A no-man’s land always exists between basic research and commercial development, but with venture dollars drying up and public grants being scaled back, the gap has become a worse problem. Federal law allows universities to get a royalty stream from professors who do the start-up work for a technology. We created a similar structure in which Argonne scientists and the laboratory itself took equity stakes in ADT. Argonne is the first national lab to do that. We had to approach this delicately, however. If one stakeholder doesn’t win, that’s the end of the game.
FE: How did you separate the work you did as a scientist and the research you did as an entrepreneur?
Carlisle: My colleague, Mike Pellin, agreed to be the nominal leader for the work done by the post-doctoral students working under me. George Crabtree, the director of the lab’s materials science division, agreed to provide overall supervision of activities. It’s a serious issue to misappropriate public research funds, and those senior scientists had to spend extra time and accept the risk. We had quarterly meetings with a committee of lawyers and representatives of the University of Chicago, which oversees Argonne. The committee reviewed the reports we produced line by line, asking pointed questions about purchases paid for by ADT.
A lot of people worried about how the post-docs would react to the arrangement. In the end, they were tickled that their research had biomedical and other applications and wouldn’t just end up as a technical paper.
FE: What is the funding environment like for materials science?
Carlisle: Argonne remains the premiere materials science research center in the United States. The budgets of other national labs have been greatly reduced or zeroed out. Congress doesn’t understand our process, and budget cuts are a constant threat. ADT and technology-transfer ventures that have followed have to show that the investment creates new jobs and other economic benefits. US Rep. Judy Biggert (R-IL) is our congresswoman, and this technology-transfer model has given her and other supporters some ammunition in defending the Department of Energy’s budget.
FE: Besides pump seals, what other applications are being developed for UNCD?
Carlisle: Because diamonds are very inert, they could make excellent biosensors for monitoring human chemistry. Instead of pricking their fingers daily, diabetics might be able to ingest an electrode encased in UNCD and monitor blood sugars in real time. White blood cells do not attack nanodiamonds. As far as the human body is concerned, a UNCD device isn’t even there.
Some Russian scientists believe nanodiamonds act as antioxidants and could cure cancer.