Tuesday, 14 March 2023

Aether wants to shift you from blood diamonds to gems pulled from thin air

by Berkeley Lovelace

Diamonds: carbon, transparent, expensive, symbolic of love and commitment — and many of them come dripping with human rights abuses. They also come with a heavy environmental burden, even the lab-grown ones. So what if diamonds could be done differently, with proper traceability and sustainability? That’s exactly where Aether, a diamond-growing company based in New York, is trying to change the narrative around diamonds.

“The only thing transparent in this industry are the stones,” says Ryan Shearman, CEO of Aether Diamonds in an interview with TechCrunch. “There is no supply chain on planet Earth that’s fully traceable with respect to mined diamonds. And the same goes for a lab-grown diamond; it’s better when you’re talking about a lab-grown diamond, but it’s still nowhere near fully traceable.”

Although people are more aware of the human impact of diamond mining, and terms such as “blood diamond” or “conflict diamond” are well recognized, the environmental impact of diamond mining is enormous and perhaps a little less well-known.

“Diamonds are particularly bad in terms of the ratio of earth that needs to be moved, compared to the actual product that makes it to market. For one carat worth of diamond, you have to move about as much earth that it takes to fill up the average American living room,” says Shearman. Of course, it isn’t just the scarification of the landscape, but the vast quantities of energy required to excavate and relocate that earth, the particulates released into the atmosphere in the process, the toxic waste it generates and the residues collected in tailing ponds or that run off into waterways. Then there are accidents associated with the mines themselves, or their aftermath.

If we have to have diamonds, there must be a better way — and that’s where Aether steps in. Aether’s direct air capture process builds on a CO2 to methane conversion reaction discovered by French chemist Paul Sabatier, but one that required enormous refinement to ensure that it was energy efficient.

Aether’s diamond-growing process takes carbon dioxide from the air, which it then synthesizes into the hydrocarbon material required to grow diamonds. This hydrocarbon feedstock, or Atmospheric Methane, as the company calls it, is injected into a chemical vapor deposition reactor, where the diamond grows, one atom layer at a time. The fully grown diamonds don’t emerge from the chamber ready to be set into engagement rings or pairs of earrings. They are still rough, requiring to be cut, polished and finished. But, they have been extracted from the air, are fully traceable, and are carbon neutral.

“We can tell you where every carbon atom in your diamond came from, and we can trace the path of that carbon atom all the way through to final sale,” says Shearman.

But carbon neutral? Isn’t that a bit of a stretch for a process that requires so much energy, even when you are extracting carbon from the atmosphere to produce the diamond itself?

“From a sequestration standpoint, we would have to make a lot of diamonds to drive a huge impact. Where we have our biggest impact with diamonds is avoidance, we get to avoid all of the really terrible things that are happening with these other dirtier lab-grown diamonds and mined diamonds,” says Shearman, acknowledging that even lab-grown diamonds are an energy-hungry resource and can be terrible for the environment if that energy comes from, say, coal-fired power stations. Aether, though, claims that its production is entirely solar-energy run.

“We rely on solar, we invest in new solar development,” Shearman said. “Our manufacturing process nets out so that it’s carbon neutral, up to the point of producing the actual gemstone, not including the carbon that goes into gemstones. Any carbon that goes into the stone then takes us kind of over that threshold into carbon negative territory.” And Aether’s focus on carbon neutrality has further benefits than just its own diamond production business, too: “We are helping promote the expansion of renewables here in the States, especially in areas of the country that are currently underserved.”

Shearman says that the mythology around diamonds, around a glittering stone forged in the heat of the belly of the earth, is a romantic narrative that’s hard to overcome with a stone grown in a lab. But he senses that there’s a new story-telling opportunity here. First, it builds on the environmental and human costs that a lab-grown diamond obviates, and second, it encourages potential customers to think about a lab-grown diamond as a bit like vintage wine.

“The journey that the carbon has taken is really important for us and leans in on provenance. There’s never been a Paris diamond; there’s never been a New York City diamond, or diamond from May, or diamond from September.” Now, there can be.

For Shearman, the technology Aether is platforming is about a lot more than diamonds, though.

“We’re a carbon technology company. And we specialize in making ultra-high purity methane in a really efficient way, which will enable us in the future to get into other markets, where solid carbon products are vital,” says Shearman. Think of products such as tires and graphite for batteries, which can be produced in far more environmentally friendly conditions.

“If we can actually take that carbon from the air here in the United States and have a domestic supply, we think that can play a really interesting role in the future of that supply chain as it continues to mature.”

Now, if you were purely in it all for the environmental reasons, perhaps you could propose to a loved one with a sliver of a river-rock you found on your third date, but at least this helps move the narrative onward a bit, showing there are other alternatives than what we’ve been doing for a few hundred years.

Aether wants to shift you from blood diamonds to gems pulled from thin air by Haje Jan Kamps originally published on TechCrunch