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WisBusiness: Diamonds are a tool's best friend; nanotech company drills down

By Mitch Larson
For WisBusiness.com

Look out, jewelry lovers: you’ve got competition in the hunt for diamonds.

Nanocrystalline diamond coatings, a promising trend in nanotechnology, is the process of using diamond coatings to improve the performance of micro tools. But unlike the carats found in fine jewelry, where size usually matters, with these coatings less is more. The smaller and thinner the diamond coatings, the better.

To Patrick Heaney of Madison’s NDC Technology, the idea of developing extremely thin diamond coatings is nothing new. While completing his doctorate in material sciences at UW-Madison Heaney helped lead the way in developing a new process that paved the way for extremely thin coatings of diamonds.

“After I got my doctorate,” Heaney said, “I essentially turned my research into my company.”

Located in Madison’s University Research Park, Heaney’s company is currently funded through the National Science Foundation and a small business research grant. While working under an exclusive patent license through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, Heaney is confident that producing microscopic layers of diamonds on tools will have a great effect on the micro-tooling industry.

“Diamonds are a remarkable material because they have superior engineering properties. It’s the hardest material out there and it also has the lowest coefficient of friction. The combination of these characteristics,” Heaney said, “makes for great mechanical potential.”

The potential Heaney sees in diamond micro-tooling led him to compete in the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest. The contest features a $50,000 grand prize.

And while several other companies already produce diamond-coated tools, Heaney believes his ability to apply diamond coatings at extremely thin levels makes his process unique. This process, which Heaney thinks will help make micro-machining more efficient, has the potential to revolutionize the industry. It’s this potential that Heaney thinks will help him do well in the Governor’s Business Plan Contest.

“The difference between their model and mine is that their diamond-coatings are much thicker and can be made of a substance that has more graphite than diamond; I’m specializing in diamonds that are up to 98 percent pure diamond and are extremely thin.”

How much thinner? Up to 1,000 times thinner, Heaney said.

“It’s important to have such a thin coating because thicker coatings can affect the features of the tools they cover, especially the smaller ones. In essence, the thicker coatings can blunt the cutting edges,” he said.”

The blunting of these edges can often lead to increased wear, friction coefficient, and the amount of power needed to drive the tools. By eliminating the negative factors associated with thick diamond coatings, Heaney said, he can make better products that last longer and are more efficient.

What allows Heaney to create such a thin coating of diamond is a hybrid process that increases the adhesion process between the diamond and substrate material. The improved diamond lamination process, according to Heaney, is what makes the thin coating possible.

Because his innovation allows for such miniscule diamond-coating thicknesses, Heaney sees his process playing a large role in nanotechnology and micro-tools.

“I’m trying to go after micro-tools and micro-anvils,” Heaney said. “Some of these tools have a cutting edge radius of one micron while the standard coating is generally three to five microns. With my process, my coatings can get down into the tens of nanometers.”

For those of you wondering, one nanometer is about the thickness of a cell membrane.

“These diamond-coated micro-tools,” Heaney continued, “are used to make things like video catheters that are so small they can fit inside and take images of your veins.”

And as trends continue to demand smaller and more advanced technologies, one thing is certain: when it comes to future of micro-tooling, diamonds are quickly becoming a tool’s best friend.

-- Larson is a student in the UW-Madison Department of Life Sciences Communication.

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