Scientists have developed a way to make tiny diamonds quickly and easily with surprisingly little heat and no catalyst.
The technique involves extracting special cage-like molecules from petroleum and natural gas and then heating them with a laser under intense pressures.
The applications of the diamonds created may be limited, however, as the technique is not able to make precious stones any larger than the width of a human hair.
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Scientists have developed a way to make tiny diamonds (pictured) quickly and with surprisingly little heat and no catalyst. The technique involves extracting cage-like molecules from petroleum and natural gas and then heating them with a laser under intense pressures
'What's exciting about this paper is it shows a way of cheating the thermodynamics of what's typically required for diamond formation,' said paper author and geologist Rodney Ewing of Stanford University, in California.
The natural diamonds we have today formed from carbon buried hundreds of miles underground, where temperatures reached some thousands of degrees Fahrenheit.
The precious stones were then carried upwards to the surface by volcanic activity — bringing with them ancient minerals that can shine a light on conditions deep within the Earth's interior.
'Diamonds are vessels for bringing back samples from the deepest parts of the Earth,' added Stanford university mineralogist Wendy Mao, who leads the laboratory where Professor Ewing and colleagues conducted most of their research.
In contrast, the researchers were interested in the processes that can be used to make diamonds in the lab, such that could eventually help apply the unique properties of the the precious stones to other applications.
Diamonds are extremely hard, transparent to light, chemically stable and transfer heat efficiently — properties that could find myriad uses, including in medicine, biological sensing, quantum computing hardware and general industry.
Experts have been making artificial diamonds for more than six decades, but conventional methods for diamond synthesis typically require massive amounts of energy or time — or the addition of a catalyst that diminishes the resulting material.
'We wanted to see just a clean system, in which a single substance transforms into pure diamond - without a catalyst,' said lead author and geologist Sulgiye Park.
The applications of the diamonds created may be limited, however, as the technique is not able to make precious stones any larger than the width of a human hair. Pictured, lead author Sulgiye Park poses with a sample of the diamondoid powder and a model of its structure
In their study, the team started with samples of a powder — which superficially resembles rock salt — that they refined from the fossil fuel petroleum.
On an atomic scale, the powders — known as diamondoids — are structured similarly to a diamond, albeit one in which the crystal lattice had been split into small units composed of one, two or three molecular cages.
Unlike real diamonds, which are made of pure carbon, the diamondoids also contain atoms of hydrogen.
'Starting with these building blocks you can make diamond more quickly and easily,' Professor Mao explained.
'You can also learn about the [diamond formation]