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Like Superman: Aussies making diamonds in minutes at room temperature in a lab

Donna Coutts, November 19, 2020 7:00PM Kids News

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Xingshuo Huang with a sample of laboratory-made diamond in a metal case. Picture: Jamie Kidston/ANU media_cameraXingshuo Huang with a sample of laboratory-made diamond in a metal case. Picture: Jamie Kidston/ANU

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Australian scientists have made diamonds in minutes at room temperature, a feat* only ever previously achieved by Superman.

They did it by squashing carbon* with pressure equivalent to the weight of 640 African elephants standing on the tip of one ballet shoe.

In nature, the process of making diamonds takes billions of years as well as very high temperature and huge amounts of pressure.

The international team of scientists, led by The Australian National University (ANU) and RMIT University, made two types of diamonds: the kind found on an engagement ring and another type of diamond called Lonsdaleite, which is found in nature where a meteorite has hit the Earth, such as at Canyon Diablo in the US.

One of the lead researchers, ANU Professor Jodie Bradby, said their breakthrough shows that the fictional superhero character Superman may have had a similar trick up his sleeve when he crushed coal into diamond, without using his heat ray.

Diamond is pure carbon, with the carbon atoms* arranged in a strong crystal structure, giving it its strength. Coal is mostly carbon atoms, with some hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and sulphur atoms.

An auction house employee holds a pear-shaped diamond weighing 101.73 carats, as she poses for the photographers in central London, Wednesday, March 13, 2013. Offered for sale for the first time on May 15, 2013 in Geneva, Switzerland by Christie's, the gemstone, one of the largest pear-shaped diamonds known to date, is a D colour, Type IIA Flawless gem. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis) media_cameraA pear-shaped diamond weighing 101.73 carats, offered for sale by auction house Christie’s in 2013. It is one of the largest pear-shaped diamonds ever found. Picture: AP

“Natural diamonds are usually formed over billions of years, about 150km deep in the Earth where there are high pressures and temperatures above 1000C,” said Prof Bradby.

The team, including former ANU researcher Tom Shiell, now at Carnegie Institution for Science, US, previously created Lonsdaleite in the lab only at high temperature.

The new and unexpected discovery shows both Lonsdaleite and regular diamond can also form at normal room temperature by just applying high pressure – equivalent to 640 African elephants on the tip of a ballet shoe.

African Elephants at Sunset media_cameraAfrican elephants in Kenya. Picture: iStock

“The twist in the story is how we apply the pressure. As well as very high pressures, we allow the carbon to also experience something called ‘shear’ – which is like a twisting or sliding force. We think this allows the carbon atoms to move into place and form Lonsdaleite and regular diamond,” Prof Bradby said.

Co-lead researcher Professor Dougal McCulloch and his team at RMIT used advanced imaging techniques to capture images to show how the two types of diamonds formed.

“Our pictures showed that the regular diamonds only form in the middle of these Lonsdaleite veins under this new method,” Prof McCulloch said.

“Seeing these little ‘rivers’ of Lonsdaleite and regular diamond for the first time was just amazing and really helps us understand how they might form.”

Lonsdaleite, named after the crystallographer* Dame Kathleen Lonsdale has a different crystal structure to regular diamond. It is predicted to be 58 per cent harder.

“Lonsdaleite has the potential to be used for cutting through ultra-solid materials on mining sites,” Prof Bradby said.

“Creating more of this rare but super useful diamond is the long-term aim of this work.”

Xingshuo Huang, an ANU PhD scholar, was also part of the research team.

“Being able to make two types of diamonds at room temperature was exciting to achieve for the first time in our lab,” she said.

University of Sydney and Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the US were also part of the team. The results of the research are published in the journal Small.

(FILE pic)  Actor Christopher Reeve in a scene from one of the "Superman" movies.  Reeve died 10/10/04 he was 52  AFP  film costumes headshot media_cameraChristopher Reeve in a scene from one of the Superman movies.

GLOSSARY

  • feat: a great achievement
  • carbon: a nonmetal substance; diamonds and graphite are pure carbon
  • atoms: the smallest particle of a pure substance that can exist
  • crystallographer: crystal scientist

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  1. What are diamonds made from?
  2. How did they make the diamonds?
  3. What three conditions are needed to make diamonds in nature?
  4. What have elephants got to do with this story?
  5. Where could Lonsdaleite be useful?

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