According to a study published late last year by Transparency International, the synthetic diamond market is anticipated to reach $28.8 billion by 2023 – that’s a CAGR of nearly 7%. Unlike naturally occurring diamonds, synthetic diamonds are prepared by subjecting carbon to High Pressure High Temperature (HPHT) conditions or Chemical Vapor Deposition (CVD) processes that help simulate the natural conditions that contribute to the formation of diamonds.
Given the relative ease with which such diamonds can be manufactured in the laboratory, the cost of these man-made diamonds are simply a fraction of what a natural diamond costs. Today, such diamonds are primarily used in the manufacture of construction and mining equipment and to make devices for the electronics and healthcare market. Also, since the carat, color and cut of the diamonds can be customized, such synthetic diamonds are also a popular choice in the consumer market.
But perhaps one of the less discussed benefits of the growth in synthetic diamonds is its effect on the Geothermal energy market. According to Halliburton, the extreme high temperatures along with the hard and corrosive rocks in the earth’s interior are among the biggest challenges that geothermal energy producers face. These challenges have been typically accentuated by the high cost of diamond-tipped bores required to drill these hard rocks.
A few years back, the US Navy and Sandia National Labs began research on using the polycrystalline diamond compact (PDC) technology to build drill-bits that could make the construction of geothermal wells far cheaper than they are at the moment. An MIT research paper predicts that advanced technology could help us grow from the current levels of 10.7 GW (2010) to as much as 100 GW by 2030.
There are two main hurdles along the way. First is the technological ability to drill deeper. The US Department of Energy notes in a vision statement that advanced geothermal development will require us to drill in as much as 30,000 feet deep (5.7 miles). At present, geothermal wells are rarely ever more than 1.9 miles deep. To make this affordable, we will first need to build affordable drilling machines that are harder and capable of penetration. Secondly, we will need to minimize the cost of failure – the cost of drilling bits breakage can be significant.
Cheap synthetic diamonds help fix these challenges. For one, the lower cost of manufacturing make it possible to build larger drill bits that are not prohibitively expensive to manufacture. Also, larger diamond drill bits reduce the chance of failure thus reducing the cost of drilling much further.
Today, most geothermal wells are built over abandoned oil wells that are typically less than 7000 feet in depth. While cost-effective, this is not sustainable and may not be sufficient to meet the MIT study target to reach 100 GW in the next fifteen years. But with cost of drilling likely to come down significantly thanks to the synethic diamond technology, it will not be long before the geothermal energy costs are affordable and make it a viable renewable energy alternative.