The sixth element
Stephanie Liggins describes how her PhD research on defects within the structure of diamonds led her to a career in industrial product development
I've always been interested in how things work, and this natural affinity (combined with ability) led me to study physics throughout my school and undergraduate years.
When it came time for me to decide what to study for my PhD, condensed-matter physics seemed like a natural progression.
This was partly because I was swayed by the enthusiasm of Mark Newton, who became my PhD supervisor at the University of Warwick. But I also became fascinated by the idea of adapting and controlling the properties of different materials in order to achieve specific outcomes, such as sensing in extreme environments or single-spin magnetometry, and to develop technological solutions for the many challenges that scientists face today.
Newton's research is on the extreme properties of diamond, including its very large electronic energy gap, its optical transparency from the ultraviolet into the infrared and the defects that give it its character. My PhD project was about identifying and characterizing some of these defects, and I was fortunate enough to be sponsored by the Diamond Trading Company, part of the De Beers Group. Through this sponsorship, I became aware of another firm, Element Six, in which the De Beers Group is a majority shareholder, and which applies the properties of synthetic diamond to solve customers' materials-science problems. I soon realized that I was attracted by the idea of working with a material that has so much scope for innovation, and it seemed like a natural fit to join Element Six's research team after I completed my PhD.
An award-winning product
Element Six's business is the design, development and production of synthetic diamond supermaterials for commercial applications. (Its name comes from the fact that diamond is a form of carbon – the sixth element in the periodic table.) I was drawn to the company because I knew I would be able to get involved right from the start and have my work taken seriously. Thanks to the experience I had gained during my PhD, I was thrown in at the deep end, immediately becoming involved in the company's R&D team after I started in November 2010.
Many of the synthetic-diamond products that Element Six develops, such as drill bits for road picks and windows for high-power optical lasers, have very practical uses. However, the first project I worked on was different: a synthetic diamond "tweeter dome" for a loudspeaker system. The tweeter, as its name implies, is a specific speaker designed to reproduce the highest-frequency sounds; the dome is the part that vibrates to generate sound waves. The light weight and extreme rigidity of diamond makes it a great material for tweeter domes, and a high-end hi-fi company, Bowers & Wilkins, asked Element Six to help develop this key component for their new 800 Diamond Series range of loudspeakers.
My role in this project was to re-engineer some elements of the synthesis process that had been initially developed for the original 800 series tweeter dome so that they were suitable for an associated application, extending the product range. Both the initial and continued stages of the dome development process led to Element Six winning a major industry prize, the Queen's Award for Enterprise in Innovation, in 2012. It was definitely exciting to work on this unusual application of diamond-synthesis technology, and to see it achieve the Queen's Award was a real validation of all the hard work we put in.
Element Six is a growing mid-size company with around 2500 employees worldwide and I have always found it a very personal and friendly place to work. Things "felt right" from the outset, and I very much enjoy being part of a team full of people I can learn from and who are always keen to learn more themselves. On a day-to-day basis, the work I do is pretty varied. I spend roughly half of my time in the laboratory, running chemical vapour deposition reactors, analysing material and designing further experiments. The rest of my time is divided between answering technical queries from customers, supporting my colleagues in R&D and production, and reporting to stakeholders. There's definitely a balance between the academic aspects of the role and the more commercial ones, so while my technical and data-analysis skills are important, I also need to be able to work with customers, understand their concerns and present solutions to them.
I would say that because of this variety, the working environment at Element Six is fast-paced and intellectually challenging, and you need to be prepared for your colleagues to critically assess your ideas and thought processes. That said, there is a real sense of achievement that comes from seeing your ideas in an actual product, one that provides a tangible solution for customers. It's great that I am able to use what I learned in my PhD in a commercial setting, and overall I feel that the company has given me a wealth of opportunities to do this.
When I started working at Element Six, I was part of a team based at Ascot in Berkshire, but we will soon be moving to the company's new Global Innovation Centre in Oxford. This centre has been designed to bring all of the company's R&D teams together, and it is now the world's largest synthetic-diamond research and development facility. I'm looking forward to working more closely with colleagues from a range of scientific disciplines, and I also hope to use the company's international R&D footprint and global customer base to follow some of my ideas into the field – wherever they are being used.
There will be a number of job opportunities as the new centre gets up and running, so current postgraduates who are considering a career in the industrial synthetic-diamond industry should think about applying now. Applicants will need to understand the industry and have a strong background in materials science, but it could be a great fit for people who, like me, want to work in R&D and innovation at a commercial organization.
Stephanie Liggins is a senior research scientist in the R&D team at Element Six. For more information about careers at the company, go to www.e6.com/careers