Scientists at North Carolina State University have developed a material that rivals the hardness of diamond. Named ‘Q-carbon’, the substance is created through a physical process applied to carbon that the researchers say represents another phase, or distinct form, of carbon – much like graphite and diamond is.
Described in the Journal of Applied Physics, the technique used to make Q-carbon consists of a small laser beam hitting a piece of amorphous carbon for 200 nanoseconds. This heats the material up extremely fast, and then it cools in a process called quenching. The rapid quenching effectively freezes the carbon atoms in place after being heated, leaving them tightly sealed together.
“We do it so fast that we can fool Mother Nature,” Narayan told Live Science.
One application of this new process, according to the lead scientist on the study, Jay Narayan, is the ability to make 200 milligrams of diamond in a mere 15 minutes. By concentrating the short pulse of laser light on the carbon, one can produce minuscule synthetic diamond ‘seeds’, which can then be turned into gems. This process can be done at room temperature and normal air pressure, making it easier to replicate in a large scale context, despite yielding a smaller amount of diamond than the traditional industrial techniques.
However expensive jewellery is only the tip of the ice berg for what this new method could lead to. Narayan and his team note that the Q-carbon is also magnetic, fluorescent, and electroconductive as well, meaning tons of potential for making phone and computer screens brighter and longer-lasting, reinforcing tools like deep water drills, and creating synthetic body parts that are more durable and maybe even glow in the dark. How cool would it be to have an arm that is not only harder than diamond, but can work as a makeshift flashlight? The answer is very.
It isn’t yet known whether this substance is naturally occurring, but Mr. Narayan believes it may actually exist in the core of planets.
Although despite the head turning nature of this discovery, it’s not yet clear how accurate the team’s claims are, given that the method and material is so new. The journal is quite credible, but at best, this discovery only highlights something to observe as more research is done. Even the editor in chief of the journal, André Anders, is wary of getting too excited just yet.
“This is one of those ‘wow’ papers,” he said. “I put a sticky note on the manuscript that said ‘pay attention to this one’ before the peer review even happened. But the second thought I have, and this is the scientist in me, is that I’m always skeptical.”
Nonetheless there’s already tons of interest surrounding the substance as well as the technique used to make it. Neil Krishnan, director of technology platforms at the Swedish industrial toolmaker Sandvik Hyperion, said the discovery is “extremely interesting.”
“I still think it’s at a nascent stage for us to consider it a competitive threat per se,” he said. “But it would definitely be a new technology that we’d be interested in.”
I for one am pretty excited to see the kinds of new technology this discovery brings.