Ian Barnett on the versatility of diamonds

Diamonds have always had a good press, despite their history. A scientific marvel and a fashionista’s dream, they bring unrivalled sophistication yet unparalleled hardness to everything they touch, but have funded numerous illegal wars over the decades and are now at the centre of exciting new scientific breakthroughs.

Conflict, or blood diamonds came to fame in the 1990s in Sierra Leone, during their particularly bloody civil war. The revenues generated from the sale of these blood diamonds funded the illicit purchase of arms for criminal regimes and rebel operations, causing the deaths of many civilians over the past few decades. Similar struggles were fought in other African countries, such as Angola, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and Côte D’Ivoire. The Kimberley Process, introduced in 2003, ensures that diamonds are from legal sources by requiring certification from the country of origin before the diamonds can be sold. Today, over 99% of the world’s diamonds are from conflict-free sources with an estimated 65% coming from African countries. The profits from the sale of diamonds are essential for creating infrastructure, such as schools, roads and hospitals in some of the world’s poorest countries, with 33% of the GDP of Botswana and 40% ofNigeria’s exports coming from diamonds. Yet even today some countries, such as Côte D’Ivoire, are still no tKimberley process compliant.

Diamond Mine in Russia

Stable at high temperatures and pressures, diamond is an allotrope of carbon. It is a single crystal composed of tetrahedrally bonded carbon atoms in a cubic structure. Comparatively, graphite, another allotrope of carbon, is composed of layers of carbon atoms, which can be separated easily, for example when writing. The rough gems occur naturally in the Earth’s crust; various sized crystals being formed deep inside the Earth, up to 3.3 billion years ago, and rising to the surface. However, studies in recent years have revealed other methods by which diamonds can be produced in just 4 days. Synthetic diamonds are produced by heating graphite and a diamond seed to 1500oC under 57 atmospheres pressure. These diamonds cost only a fifth of natural ones and can even have chemical impurities introduced to add colour.

Diamond’s uses are certainly not restricted to just drill bits and engagement rings. When heated, diamond releases electrons, placing it at the centre of current research into its uses in solar panels. This project, taking place at the University of Bristol, is funded by the energy company E.ON, which hopes to have working prototypes by late 2011. Diamond’s inertness makes it extremely biocompatible, and thus suitable for use in implants. This quality coupled with its hardness, stability and electronic properties have led to the development of a new diamond bionic eye. The device, which is implanted on the retina, works by sending images captured by a camera as electrical impulses, stimulating the nearby optic nerve. It is thought diseases such as age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of visual impairment amongst older people, could be cured using such a device. Diamond nanoparticles are even present in candles flames, as St Andrews’ own Professor Wuzong Zhou discovered earlier this year. Every second, 1.5 million diamond nanoparticles are formed and are then, unfortunately converted to carbon dioxide as they rise up the flame.

 

Replica of the Cullinan Diamond

On a larger scale, the 3106 carat Cullinan diamond is the biggest and arguably the most desirable diamond discovered in the world today. Weighing in at an impressive 621.2g, it would certainly make Beyoncé’s shiny five million dollar 18 carat diamond engagement rock look like a Haribo gummy ring. This in turn however is totally outshined by NASA’s recent discovery; a ten billion trillion trillion carat planet made from diamond. The eloquently named planet, PSR J1719-1438 b, is situated 4000 light years from Earth. It is expected that when the sun eventually dies and becomes a white dwarf, in some five billion years time, it too will crystallise to become a diamond.

From royalty to rapper, The Queen’s engagement ring and Kanye West’s teeth are both diamond. It is the diamond’s unique ability to appeal to all that ensures this commodity is unlikely to disappear, even if it does mean a trip to space to buy them!

 

Ian Barnett

Image 1 – Wikicommons by Crucified Christ

Image 2 credit – Wikicommons by Stepanovas

Image 2 credit – Wikicommons by Parent Gery