Diamonds are not just a woman’s best friend, but an intriguing aspect for scientists too. For decades now, scientists have tried to synthesize artificial diamonds in the lab by recreating the environment of high heat and pressure found in the bowels of the Earth which crushes graphite into sparkling gems. Some have also experimented with a method called chemical vapor deposition that blows a hydrocarbon gas over a substrate and uses chemical reactions to form diamonds.
But diamonds may not be the only objects cutting diamonds anymore. Researchers from North Carolina State University, under Professor Jay Narayan, have discovered a new phase of solid carbon called Q-carbon which is harder than diamond.
The researchers created Q-carbon by coating a thin plate of sapphire with amorphous carbon using high-power laser beam. Repeatedly hitting the unstructured carbon with the laser helped raise its temperature to about 4,000 Kelvin. The melted carbon was then rapidly cooled, or quenched, giving birth to the “Q” in Q-carbon.
Now, the procedure to create Q-carbon is relatively inexpensive. Besides, those interested can also use other substrates such as glass or a plastic polymer, instead of sapphire. It can be done at room temperature and at ambient air pressure, using a laser like the ones used for laser eye surgery.
Q-Carbon is a hard rock to crack
Q-carbon is not just harder than diamonds, but it has other properties as well that is intriguing scientists by no small measure. It is ferromagnetic, while other solid forms of carbon are not, and it glows even when exposed to low levels of energy, promising a new era of electronic display technologies.
The potential uses are still speculative. It might provide tools for industry and medicine, for electronic parts or for creating brighter, longer-lasting display technologies. The potentially lucrative part comes here. Diamond is expensive to mine and to manufacture, requiring high temperatures and high pressures. But by mixing up substrates and controlling the rate of cooling, Narayan and his team have discovered they can create tiny diamonds within the Q-carbon – it takes around 15 minutes to create a carat of diamond.
If Q-carbon is harder than diamond, then why would someone want to make diamond nanodots instead of Q-carbon ones? Because we still have a lot to learn about this new material. While North Carolina State University has filed two provisional patents on the Q-carbon and diamond creation techniques, the world is sure to look forward to ample research that can turn Q-Carbon into a lucrative manufacturing process.
(Featured image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/kimberlyeternal/6535411931)