Headed by Professor Chen Qianwang, a team of scientists at China’s University of Science and Technology came up with a new method of creating synthetic diamonds, a method that could pave the way for future production of cheap gem quality diamonds.
Taking his cue from scientific predecessors, Antoine Lavoisier and Smithson Tenet, Professor Chen set out to find a new process of growing diamonds in a laboratory.
“Ever since they demonstrated in the 1790’s that diamond and graphite were allotropic forms of carbon, people have been interested in converting the relatively abundant carbon materials into rarer diamonds.”
In fact, there have been several successful attempts at creating synthetic diamonds and the marketplace is already full of factory made stones, both legitimate and illegitimate.
What Professor Chen claims to have done is to perfect a different method of creating diamonds, one that he believes will have consequences.
“Previous attempts at making diamonds have worked but the difference with our method is that you do not need any diamonds seeds to start the chemical process nor do you need such high temperatures. This lowers considerably the cost of diamond production.”
Based in coastal Anhui Province, Chen found that by mixing carbon dioxide with sodium at 440 degrees centigrade under high pressure, microscopic diamond particles began to form.
“The difference with our method is that you do not need any diamonds seeds to start the chemical process nor do you need such high temperatures. This lowers considerably the cost of diamond production”
Over six months of experimentation, the largest diamond size achieved under these conditions was just over a millimeter across, comparable to other synthetic methods, but using less stringent techniques.
“Unlike other methods where temperatures of up to 1,400 degrees centigrade are used, our diamonds form at much lower, and therefore cheaper, temperature levels.
“The result is a diamond that is transparent and colourless, as opposed to a dull yellow that is the norm with other techniques. This makes these diamonds not just useful for industrial purposes, but if we can increase the size, for jewellery purposes as well.”
What also makes his process unique is that the diamonds continue to grow through the addition of further reactants after the process has already begun.
“At one point, by adding further chemicals, we were creating gem stones when the pressure was much lower than a diamonds thermodynamically stable limit.
“This in itself raises further questions about our process and natural diamond formation in general, questions that we would need to explore more fully.”
When first planning the experiments, Professor Chen was so unsure of the consequences that he did not bother applying for funds as “nobody thought the idea would be realized.”
What he now claims to have created is a diamond suitable for industrial use, uses such as oil and deep core mining. “My goal now is to make gem quality diamonds. How long this might take I cannot say but if it comes true, the stock prices of some diamond companies would be going down.”
Necklaces that previously cost
“The meaning of his creation is that everyone will be able to buy a diamond.”
Jilbertto Isaacco, an East Asian jewellery manufacturer, is fascinated by the idea.
“It is still a diamond, whether it was made in the factory or taken from the ground it is chemically still a diamond. The only question is what colour is it. Too yellow and it will be cheap, too white and it will be expensive. What quality levels can he create in the laboratory?”
For Professor Chen, the offers have already started coming in. “A lot of companies have made inquiries about buying the patent to the discovery rather than buying the diamonds themselves.”
Not everyone impressed
At leaders of the diamond business community, De Beers, the response was less enthusiastic.
Not willing to be drawn into comments on Professor Chen’s experiments until further scientific analysis had been carried out, De Beers pointed out that they already produce hundreds of tons of synthetic diamonds every year for industrial use.
“The advantages are that you can custom order your diamonds to fit your equipment design. This is not a new process in the diamond world. The only difference here may be the process used to create diamonds but we will wait for further scientific evaluation of his discovery.”
For the De Beers spokesman there was also the question of consumer choice. Even if Professor Chen creates a gem quality diamond, will the recipient want to wear a “diamond dug out of the ground or one knocked up yesterday in a factory?”
Marketing the end product is, as Professor Chen himself admits, “something I have not yet worried about”.