The emission of electrons from diamond in vacuum occurs readily as a result of the negative electron affinity of the hydrogenated surface due to features with nanoscale dimensions, which can concentrate electric fields high enough to induce electron emission from them. Electrons can be emitted as a result of an applied electric field (field emission) with possible uses in displays or cold-cathode devices. Alternatively, electrons can be emitted simply by heating the diamond in vacuum to temperatures as low as 350 °C (thermionic emission), and this may find applications in solar energy generation or energy harvesting devices. Electron emission studies usually use doped polycrystalline diamond films deposited onto Si or metallic substrates by chemical vapor deposition, and these films have a rough, faceted morphology on the micron or nanometer scale. Electron emission is often improved by patterning the diamond surface into sharp points or needles, the idea being that the field lines concentrate at the points lowering the barrier for electron emission. However, there is little direct evidence that electrons are emitted from these sharp tips. The few reports in the literature that have studied the emission sites suggested that emission came from the grain boundaries and not the protruding regions. We now present direct observation of the emission sites over a large area of polycrystalline diamond using tunneling atomic force microscopy. We confirm that the emission current comes mostly from the grain boundaries, which is consistent with a model for emission in which the non-diamond phase is the source of electrons with a threshold that is determined by the surrounding hydrogenated diamond surface.

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