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Diamonds: a dime a dozen

A new way to create diamonds could change the world

A team of geophysicists at the Carnegie Institution for Science is perfecting a cheap way to create large diamonds. In his paper, “On the way to mass-scale production of perfect bulk diamonds,” published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Alexander Zaitsev stated that the method could cause a technological revolution.

“A profound impact of this innovation on industry (electronics, optics, thermal management, precise cutting), medicine (diamond scalpel surgery), and jewelry (cheap large brilliants) is difficult to overestimate,” he wrote.

The new method, begins with a tiny “seed” diamond, which acts as a landing point for other minute crystals floating around as gas. As more and more crystals land on the seed, a larger and larger diamond is created. The process occurs at temperatures above 1,700 degrees celsius, intense heat being one of the only conditions under which diamonds are malleable.

While the ability to synthesize diamonds has existed for decades, the new breakthrough involves low pressure processing conditions. It is cheaper, and far more efficient than past procedures for growing diamonds. A major advantage of the new method is that it avoids the breakdown of the diamond structure into graphite, a problem which plagued previous attempts at synthesizing diamonds.

Geophysicist Yan Chih-shiue, of the Carnegie institution of Washington, and a researcher on the team that developed the technique, is confident that the method will eventually replace diamond mining.

“[The method] is still progressing, and will overcome the disadvantages of the [previous] high pressure, high temperature method, and of mining diamonds,” he said in an interview with the daily. “Mined diamonds vary in quality, and in size. Over five carat is very rare, and it is becoming more expensive to explode old mines and locate new mines.”

Not only could the new method be cheaper and more efficient, but it could also do away with the harm caused by diamond mining in countries without strict regulations. According to a report by the Diamond Development Initiative, diamond mining in unregulated areas – such as the huge alluvial deposits of Africa – can be a source of environmental degradation and social conflict.

“Diggers, many of them children, face appalling working conditions. Residents of mining areas complain of environmental degradation, water pollution, and the influx of migrant labour, with high rates of prostitution and HIV/AIDS, and too often family and societal violence follow,” the report stated, speaking of the conditions facing over 200,000 workers in Africa.

Aside from social improvements that could come from lab-made diamonds, there is a potential for improvements in the diamonds themselves. Because of their flawlessness, lab grown diamonds are more brilliant – or colourful – than mined diamonds. They are also structurally perfect. Combined with their affordability, their optical and structural quality will make them suited to many applications, from the Carnegie institute’s own mineral processing machinery, to engagement rings.

Since the diamonds are highly transparent they could be used in lasers as a window for outgoing light. Diamonds can also be produced to have parts of their carbon structure replaced with nitrogen, a quality which gives them a pink color. The nitrogen diamonds, along with their perfect nano-scale structure, suggest the possibility for diamond use in future quantum computing – a field which could theoretically revolutionize computation, but which lacks the technological know-how to make theory reality. With the aid of rosy synthetic diamonds, we could soon find ourselves in an era of information stored on the atomic scale, within diamonds themselves.

In the meantime though, the synthetic crystal industry is all about increasing the carats. And as for future challenges for the Carnegie Institutes geophysical engineer team, Researcher Yufei Meng says that it’s all about “Making the diamonds bigger.”