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Gresham's new Lightbox Lab grows cheap and cheerful diamonds in weeks for use in jewelry - but not for engagement rings

COURTESY: LIGHTBOX - Diamonds are grown at just less than a centimeter square. This one has been partially cut and polished to show off the raw material.

In Element Six's new Gresham plant, diamonds are now being be grown in a couple of weeks using microwave heat and gases.

On the factory floor, hundreds of CVD (chemical vapor deposition) vacuum chambers, which look like pressure cookers, are hooked up to water cooling systems and computers. Each one has a peephole so that humans can make a quick check on the contents. Upstairs in the offices, process engineers, responsible for controlling the diamond manufacture process, work at their screens, surveying dashboards and spreadsheets. Occasionally they don safety glasses and head down to the floor, but for the most part, the action takes place on screens, while the cash crop of gem-quality laboratory-grown diamonds evolves on a schedule.

The factory part is just a box, but on the other side of the $94 million facility is a sleek, modern office building, with large windows, a fast-casual cafeteria, and spacious desks. Chicago-based architecture firm Sheehan Nagle Hartray designed this part of the building to be light and airy like a diamond. In the antiseptic reception area, there's a display of jewelry. Prices are low. The stones retail for around $800 a carat, so a one-carat diamond pendant sells for $1,000, and it's $1,950 for a pair of stud earrings, each with a one-carat diamond. The stones are white (clear), pink or blue, and to the naked eye are indistinguishable from the gala night rocks and engagement ring bling you might see on Hollywood red carpets or Macy's.

COURTESY: LIGHTBOX - The reception area at the synthetic diamond factory Lightbox in Gresham has a light and airy feel, and a jewelry display case to make it clear what their market is. Element Six's company Lightbox makes diamonds for jewelery not industrial use.

Heat and light

De Beers Group, the South African diamond company, produces both natural and synthetic diamonds. Natural ones are mined from the earth by humans and mostly used for jewelry. Synthetic diamonds are made in laboratories, and although the carbon structure means they are extremely hard and are superlative conductors of electricity and heat, their dark look means they are best suited for drill bits, parts of hi-fi speakers, or optical cutting instruments. Both Lightbox and Element Six are part of De Beers Group. Element Six manufactures lab-grown diamonds for Lightbox. The new facility in Portland will exclusively focus on lab-grown diamonds for Lightbox jewelry.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - At Lightbox one of their synthetic diamonds being polished on a grinder, like a needle on a record, as part of quality control. Most are sold rough like natural diamonds.

The old method of synthesizing diamonds is called high-pressure, high-temperature (HPHT), and has been displaced by chemical vapor deposition (CVD). In Gresham, they are strictly using CVD. Inside the little chambers, heat (3,000 degrees Celsius) and gases such as methane (a source of carbon), argon and oxygen, combine to create the perfect lattice of carbon atoms that form diamonds. They grow on a heavy disc of metal the size of a CD made of tungsten carbide. The atoms are laid down, layer by layer, until they grow into a chunk the size of a Chiclet. The diamonds are removed easily by hand, and then they are packed and sold as any rough diamond for cutting and polishing for jewelry.

Only in the last decade has the technology advanced to a place where it became cost-effective to be able to make a gem quality stone for jewelry.

COURTESY: LIGHTBOX - The synthetic diamond factory Lightbox in Gresham has a light and airy feel, a metaphor for what's made inside.

Top carat

Steve Coe, CEO of Lightbox, the De Beers Group company that sells manufactured diamond jewelry, explained that lab-grown diamonds can now compete with natural ones for clarity and purity, which means they can stand scrutiny as jewelry. Your average consumer cannot tell them apart.

When fully up and running, the Gresham plant will manufacture up to 200,000 polished carats of diamonds every year. Typical natural mines vary in their output, but they often run in the 200,000 a million carats per year range. The push to make diamonds for jewelry in Gresham allows Element Six to focus on one type of diamond and expand production.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JOSEPH GALLIVAN  - Lightbox jewelry on display in the factory's reception area in Gresham.

It could bring work to the region in the future. A massive bank of monitors on the factory floor shows analytical data for process engineers, summarizing some of the plant performance. When they come on their shift, the engineers can study their board and see what they have to do for the next 12 hours. Due to all the gas and chemicals involved, most of the work requires paying attention to screens and numbers.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - The office area at the synthetic diamond factory Lightbox in Gresham has a light anD airy feel. Here engineers keep track of the growth of diamonds that is going on on the factory floor.

Electric Avenue

Both Coe and Adam O'Grady, the facility's general manager, said the Gresham site was chosen for its access to cheap, reliable electricity. Not only does hydropower from the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River have green cachet, but it is also reliable. If the power supply is interrupted in the three-week process of making a diamond, the stone is ruined.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Next door to the Lightbox plant in Gresham there is room to expand on to the land now used as a nursery, if synthetic gems take off worldiwde.

The clincher for this greenfield site (next door, there are acres of plants being grown at a nursery) is the nearby McGill substation, from where a thick power cable runs under the road straight to Element Six. Two other power lines reach Element Six from Gresham and Troutdale. Building a new substation would have taken over three years to get the permits, explained O'Grady.

COURTESY: LIGHTBOX - Diamonds are grown on a disc of metal the size of a CD made of tungsten carbide. Carbon from methane vapor is deposited in a film over about three weeks at 3,000 degrees Celsius.

De Beers also chose Oregon because of its local microprocessor and manufacturing talent, such as people trained at Intel and Boeing.

"This type of chemical vapor deposition process, of effectively a film growth process, is very similar to what you find in the semiconductor industry," said O'Grady, an Irishman transferred to Oregon.

COURTESY: LIGHTBOX - An engineer at the new Lightbox synthetic diamond factory in Gresham inspects an open CVD chamber.

Out of methane, bling

The methane comes from Praxair and is further purified on-site. "The fire department of the city of Gresham is pretty easy to work with," said O'Grady. "They're pretty clear about what they want. We follow the rules." He added that the City of Gresham's permitting office was also very responsive, and the whole structure was built within 18 months, which is fast.

The Element Six plant in Ascot, England, also makes gem-quality diamonds, but that is being phased out there, and Gresham will become the center of its jewel output.

COURTESY: LIGHTBOX - The chemical vapor deposition chambers (bottom left, dark grey) in which Lightbox's synthetic diamonds grow. High temperatures are more important than high pressure, hence the blue and red water cooling hoses.

The site was also chosen because it has enough land to expand over time if need be. The vast majority of the 60 staff on site were recruited locally, and the work is a mixture of science and factory work. One recent afternoon, a group sat at a cutting station grinding facets on sample diamonds as part of quality control. Others tinkered with the CVD chambers and the water hoses that, in the whole plant, handle 3,000 gallons per minute.

O'Grady says they are happy with the location.

"There's a balancing act between finding the right site that's the right size that's at a reasonable cost that's close to a metro area where you can get people that's close to an airport where you can get people in and out," he said. "One that has precision manufacturing companies around, that has contractors around, all of that infrastructure that makes it easy to do."


Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
971-204-7874
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