For CAREER award, Cai proposes novel method for fabricating nanocrystalline diamonds


Taylor Tucker

Lili CaiMechSE Assistant Professor Lili Cai has won a 2023 National Science Foundation CAREER award. Her new study, “Atmospheric-Pressure Manufacturing of Nanocrystalline Diamonds by Plasma-Assisted Flat Flame Vapor Deposition,” will explore a novel approach to fabricating nanoscale diamonds.

The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program “offers NSF’s most prestigious awards in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization.” Cai’s study, funded through 2028, has the potential to improve many significant facets of the technology sector. 

Nanoscale diamonds possess desirable properties for a plethora of applications including semiconductor, energy, and biomedical. However, current fabrication methods rely on either high- or low-pressure processes and do not support fabrication at atmospheric pressure, which is necessary for continuous, scalable manufacturing. 

Cai will investigate flame vapor deposition, which has the ability to manufacture nanocrystalline diamonds at atmospheric pressure. This approach eliminates the need for batch-by-batch fabrication because it does not require the lengthy loading and unloading process necessary for maintaining the formation of nanocrystalline diamonds fabricated at high or low pressure.   

Over the next five years, Cai and her team will study the coupling of flame vapor deposition and plasma under the hypothesis that this coupling will 1) improve the growth rate, uniformity, and stability of nanocrystalline diamonds for scaling up manufacturing and 2) increase the in-situ doping efficiency for controlling the diamonds’ functionality.

Cai’s study aims to provide an economically viable platform for high-quality, large-scale manufacturing. This is significant for advancing techniques relevant to U.S. welfare and defense such as thermal management, energy conversion and storage, nanoscale sensing, biomedical imaging, and quantum computing.