Aussie scientists have found a new way to make diamonds – and it could have broader implications

There’s a new way to make diamonds. Image: Getty
  • Australian scientists are part of a team that have developed a different way to make diamonds.
  • The team, which includes scientists from the Australian National University and RMIT, found a way to make the type of diamonds used for engagement rings and another type of diamond called Lonsdaleite by using pressure, rather than high temperatures.
  • One of the lead researchers, Jodie Bradby, told Business Insider Australia what this will mean for diamond production.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

Australian scientists were part of an international team that has discovered a new way to create diamonds.

The team, including scientists from the Australian National University and RMIT, were able to make diamonds in a lab at room temperature by using high pressure, rather than through high temperatures or drilling for naturally occurring diamonds.

They were able to create two types of diamonds: the king used on engagement rings and the type called Lonsdaleite. Named after crystallographer Dame Kathleen Lonsdale, who was the the first woman elected into the British scientific organisation, Royal Society, Lonsdaleite is considered to be much harder than standard diamonds.

ANU Professor Jodie Bradby, one of the lead researchers, explained that if you rearrange the crystal structure of carbon in a certain way, you get graphite which we use in pencils.

“If you rearrange it in a different way, you can get diamond, which is really hard,” she told Business Insider Australia. “And if we arrange it in a different way again, we can get a form of diamond that’s even harder than the regular diamond and that’s called Lonsdaleite.

“And it’s one of the hardest known materials postulated to exist. It should be about 50% harder than regular diamonds.”

Bradby added that Lonsdaleite has applications anywhere diamond is used as a material, such as on drill bits for mining machinery or any type of hard blade.

The scientists discovered that both regular diamonds and Lonsdaleite can be made at room temperature by using extremely high pressure – the same as having 640 African elephants on the tip of a ballet shoe.

“We’ve found a different pathway to make diamonds from graphite, or any sort of black carbon type material,” Bradby said. “We know diamonds are formed deep in the earth, where it’s super hot and there’s lots of pressure, and some diamonds are millions and millions of years old.

“What we’ve been able to do is make them in the lab with a method that relies solely on pressure. So we’ve taken temperature and time out of the equation.”

The discovery has major implications for diamond manufacturing, because traditional processes that require high temperatures are more difficult and expensive.

“If you make it just at room temperature, it’s much more simple,” Bradby said.

While the team has been able to make the type of diamonds used in jewellery, their main focus is on producing diamonds for industrial processes.

“We are hoping that if this means we can make a harder-than-diamond diamond, it might mean that miners would not have to change a drill bit as frequently,” Bradby said. “And it would just be economically easier to use this type of a diamond drill bit than the previous regular type of diamonds because diamonds are often embedded in these instruments.”

ANU Professor Jodie Bradby holds the diamond anvil that the team used to make the diamonds in the lab. Credit: Jamie Kidston, ANU.

Making diamonds in a lab

The notion of diamond rings being used for engagements was popularised by mining giant De Beers, who launched a wildly successful advertising campaign during the 1940s with the slogan “a diamond is forever”.

More recently, there have been shifting attitudes among millennials when it comes to diamonds, as there is growing awareness of blood diamonds – diamonds mined and sold to fund conflict – and the small but growing popularity of synthetic diamonds.

Bradby highlighted that synthetic diamonds are identical to natural diamonds.

“There is no difference chemically, structurally, mechanically,” she said, adding that synthetic diamonds can be made through high pressure, high temperature processes or through chemical based processes, which can be quite slow.

The issue with synthetic diamonds, says Bradby, is that they take a long time to make and are relatively expensive. Nonetheless, she said chemical processes can grow gem-quality diamonds that can rival the natural diamond market, and that it will interesting to see how this will pan out in the future, particularly around what people value in a diamond.

“[If it’s] really important for them that it was formed deep in the earth over billions of years or are they happy for it to be grown in the lab?” she said.

With this new process developed by scientists there could be scope to make more diamonds for jewellery purposes.

“If we could get the amount of pressure that we need to form this right down, there would be a possibility that we could make some traditionally sparkly looking diamonds. But I think that’s a ways down the track,” Bradby added.

The research team’s plan now is to make more diamonds by lowering the pressure needed to form it.

“We’ve got a few tricks up our sleeve to see if we can do that,” Bradby said.”If we can get the pressure right down to a reasonable level – because at the moment something like 300 tonnes is required on a very small area to make this diamond – if we can get that down much lower, then you can start to get into the area where bulk amounts of it can be manufactured.

“And that’s what the dream is.”

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