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US Funds Tarnished Gem Of Russian Science Projects

The United States is reaching out to help some Russians weather their tough economic times. Promising projects range from a charity that feeds 10,000 orphans to a joint-venture institute that will employ 20 scientists. Diamond-film work promises to revolutionize electronics

DIAMOND film - a wonder material of the 1990s - is giving new sparkle to Russian-American science cooperation.

The University of Missouri at Columbia last week announced the formation of an International Diamond Research Institute that will link the efforts of American and Russian researchers in developing a major new materials technology pioneered by Russians scientists. It will also provide ``survival rations'' for the scientists, whose work is threatened by Russia's inability to support them. Diamond film shows merit

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Diamond dust and crystals are well-known industrial materials. But diamond film has only begun to show commercial merit.

Diamond film forms a hard-wearing coating when it is chemically deposited from carbon-containing gases at low pressure.

The coating extends the life of tools. What may be more important, though, is that it has electronic properties equal or superior to those of silicon - the material used to make computer chips and other solid-state electronic components. Furthermore, diamond film is much more resistant to heat and radiation than silicon, properties that could greatly extend the life of electronic circuits and solar-power cells.

Rustim Roy, a solid-state chemist at Pennsylvania State University at University Park, calls the ability to form and work with diamond film one of the most important developments in contemporary materials science.

The film has already found a $20 million-a-year market, largely as a protective coating. Dr. Roy notes that industry analysts expect a market of several billion dollars for coatings and electronic components by the year 2000.

However, Mark Prelas, a nuclear-engineering professor at the University of Missouri, sees the formation of the new institute in a larger perspective. ``There are a lot of hidden treasures in Russian science'' that Western experts have been unaware of, he says. ``My main goal is to save some of these treasures ... it will benefit Russia and the world.''

To help this effort, the Clinton administration has channeled $50,000 through the Department of Energy to the new Russian-American institute.

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Dr. Prelas explains that this amount of money will sustain 20 Russian diamond-film researchers for a year and boost their income to some $200 a month. ``This is survival, and that's the best we can do,'' he says.

Prelas works closely with Boris Spitsyn, a department head at the Institute of Physical Chemistry in Moscow, who has led Russian diamond-film research for nearly four decades. The Russian scientists will continue to work in Russia, even though Dr. Spitsyn is also an adjunct professor at the University of Missouri.

Spitsyn says that although Russian scientists gain valuable experience abroad and some find jobs overseas, ``We need to help Russian scientists in their [home] place.''

He warns against disrupting ``Russian science ecology.'' Spitsyn adds, ``We don't need only help like the homeless or jobless. We need help to increase our creativity.''

Spitsyn and Prelas related the history of diamond-film research at the annual New Horizons in Science conference in St. Louis held this month. The conference was organized by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, and it was co-sponsored by Washington University in St. Louis.

Spitsyn, who began his research work in 1955, explained that materials scientists originally thought they needed extremely high pressures to make diamond. It took ``a major revolution in thought'' to learn to make diamond film at low pressure, he said.

Because his work was nonmilitary, it was given low funding in the Soviet Union. But he and a few colleagues at several research centers persisted. He described their progress in a talk in the United States in 1972, but Western scientists apparently ignored it.

After he published a paper in 1981, Japanese scientists took notice and began an effort to reproduce Spitsyn's work. Then, in 1986, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency began funding similar efforts in the US. Next high-tech revolution

Prelas said he hopes other government agencies and industrial and university research groups interested in the work will share in the new Russian-American institute.

He added that he believes diamond-based electronics will become ``the next high-tech revolution.''

Spitsyn, however, warned his science-writer audience at the St. Louis conference not to ``hype'' the story. There's still much basic research to be done in the area, he explained.

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