Monday, January 24

Diamond Foundry: Extremadura sun to ‘cultivate’ diamonds without blood | Climate and Environment

The sun and photovoltaic technology have been decisive for the Diamond Foundry company, of which the actor Leonardo DiCaprio is an investor and advisor, has chosen the town of Trujillo (Cáceres) for its diamond factory project. It takes nature several thousand years to generate a diamond underground, a very precious mineral in jewelry and also very useful for the industry due to its properties as a semiconductor. But some tech companies, including this company founded in Silicon Valley in 2012, have managed to cultivate them with plasma reactors that reproduce the pressure and heat conditions necessary for their creation. These diamonds – free of suspicions about their dark origins that often hover over those extracted through mining – are ready in between 6 and 10 weeks. Although huge amounts of energy are required for the entire process, which this company wants to be of renewable origin.

Martin Roscheisen, Co-Founder and CEO of Diamond Foundry, explains that his company currently has a factory in the municipality of Wenatchee, in the State of Washington (USA). This facility is supplied by hydroelectric power generated in the Columbia River basin. In the case of Trujillo, one looks to the sky, to the photovoltaic technology to which Roscheisen has been linked for years. “The availability of solar energy is very high in Extremadura and we want our foundry to be powered by renewable energy,” he replied by email when asked about the reasons that led him to choose Trujillo. The idea is that an important part of the necessary electricity comes from solar self-consumption and with the support of storage batteries.

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The public debate in this Cáceres town of around 9,000 inhabitants was not dominated this Friday so much by diamonds, but by the prequel to the famous series Game of Thrones, since it has just been confirmed that Trujillo will once again be the setting for the production. But its mayor, the socialist José Antonio Redondo Rodríguez, acknowledges that, since the Californian company’s intention to settle in his municipality was announced in June, many neighbors have stopped him on the street to ask him for work in the new factory. In his office in the imposing town hall building, flanked by old banners and portraits of illustrious Trujillians, the councilor explains how the rural environment of Extremadura and the south of the Peninsula can seduce industry: “We can offer energy self-sufficiency”. And that for a company with high energy needs is crucial.

A neighbor walks through the historic case of Trujillo (Cáceres).
A neighbor walks through the historic case of Trujillo (Cáceres).

Five kilometers from the mayor’s office, in the Arroyo Caballo industrial estate, the factory of around 30,000 square meters of Diamond Foundry will be built if the plans go according to plan. In that place the plasma reactors would be installed, which must operate 24 hours a day, and in another location still to be closed would be developed the 120 megawatt solar plant – which requires around 200 hectares of surface – and the storage infrastructure, with a power of another 60 megawatts.

Powen, a Spanish company specialized in energy self-consumption for homes and businesses, is in charge of this part of the project. Rafael Benjumea, president of the company, highlights the importance of an international company choosing Spain to settle thanks to the availability of “cheap and renewable energy”. “It is a process of relocation of the electrointensive industry”, he maintains about the possibilities that open up for Spain before the interest of other firms. Benjumea, in addition to being the head of Powen, presides over the Spanish photovoltaic association (Unef).

Promises of employment

Just a thousand meters away from the Arroyo Caballo industrial estate is the huge ham drying room that Navidul opened more than two decades ago. The agri-food industry is now the main protagonist in Trujillo, but if the diamond project goes ahead, it would open the way for another type of economic growth in the town. The mayor predicts: “It will not only be direct jobs, but also the economic activity that is generated around the satellite companies that are believed to be linked to the project.”

When they presented the plan in June, the promoters indicated that 300 direct jobs would be created. But Roscheisen now assures that when the factory is at full capacity it will reach 650 workers, to which the indirect workers should be added. In either case, they are overwhelming figures for a town with fewer than 10,000 inhabitants like Trujillo.

From left to right, the founders of Diamond Foundry: Martin Roscheisen, Jeremy Scholz and Kyle Gazay.
From left to right, the founders of Diamond Foundry: Martin Roscheisen, Jeremy Scholz and Kyle Gazay. Diamond Foundry

Roscheisen affirms that his company is “committed to investing in Trujillo”, but explains that it is still in a first phase and many unknowns have yet to be answered about the permits, project planning and the energy that such a factory requires. The development of batteries and their fall in costs will be decisive in this business initiative, he points out. But several fronts related to financing must also be closed. Benjumea points out that the complete project – the factory with the reactors plus the solar plant and storage – involves an investment of around 800 million euros. And he explains that around 40% will be provided with own resources. The remaining 60%, detailed by Benjumea, will be achieved with public and private financing and using the different existing European aid.

The two companies have signed a collaboration agreement with the Junta de Extremadura and the central government that has led to the constitution of a monitoring committee for the development of the project. The second meeting of this body will be held in the middle of the month, explains the Extremaduran councilor for the Ecological Transition, Olga García. “It is not the only large industrial project that has been interested in establishing itself in Extremadura and all of them highlight the advantages over the availability of land and the solar resource,” adds García. The counselor believes that the processing of permits could be ready in a year. And Roscheisen’s plans are to start production in 2024.

In 2008, Trujillo already starred in another solar milestone when La Magascona was inaugurated, which was then the largest photovoltaic plant in Europe. The 20 megawatts of power of that installation seem today a trifle when compared with the plants of more than 500 megawatts that already operate in Spain. The drop in costs is also notable: La Magascona required an investment of 250 million euros. “Today a 50 megawatt plant needs an investment of 25 million,” says Francisco Barrantes, project development manager at Fotowatio, the company that built that facility and now wants to install more panels in Trujillo.

Fotowatio currently belongs to an investment fund in Saudi Arabia. But this company was also created by Rafael Benjumea, whose family is closely linked to Trujillo, which has also been decisive for the choice of this municipality for the diamond project. In addition, Roscheisen values ​​the electrical “infrastructures” that the region already has to make a plan with such high energy needs viable.

Blood diamonds and chips

In 2006, DiCaprio starred in the movie Blood diamonds. The film exposed the impacts that the diamond industry generated in the world and its connection with the wars that hit the African continent. What he learned from that shoot has motivated the actor to get involved in the project. Roscheisen’s company presents itself as a company free of such suspicions and ensures that its laboratory diamonds do not have the high environmental impacts that mining causes either.

Leonardo DiCaprio, in a scene from the movie 'Blood Diamonds'.
Leonardo DiCaprio, in a scene from the movie ‘Blood Diamonds’.

In their case, the main resource consumed is energy, so they insist that it come from renewable sources. Although they also have water needs for the cooling systems of the reactors. “We are planning to build another treatment plant for the factory to reuse these waters,” says the mayor.

The diamonds manufactured by Diamond Foundry are now used for jewelery, but also for industrial activities. And that would be the main use of those that would come out of the Trujillo factory. “We will produce diamond crystal chips,” says Roscheisen. These chips “can be used to make semiconductors more efficient.” In addition, “a fraction of the production will also go to the so-called mid-tier diamond industry, large buyers in India that serve all industries that need diamonds, including jewelry,” explains the CEO of this Silicon company. Valley to which the sun has led to Trujillo.

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