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Five functions of diamonds beyond rings | Smithsonian Voices

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Sparkling gemstones might steal the show, but diamonds have many properties that make them indispensable in all kinds of industries.
Tahlia Doyle

When it comes to diamonds, jewelry seems to get all the attention. But, carats aside, this simple mineral is full of hidden talents.

“Diamonds are a fascinating material,” said Jeffrey Post, mineralogist and curator in charge of gems and minerals at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. “It has all kinds of applications because of its hardness.” And thanks to specialized laboratory techniqueshe said, “It is possible to grow large diamond sheets quickly and inexpensively for whatever use you need.”

Here are five surprising uses that give the diamond time to shine — and not on someone’s finger.

cutting tools

Diamond’s crystalline structure – a group of carbon atoms locked together in a strong lattice – makes it the hardest known material on Earth or beyond. So when you’re trying to drill into something hard, like a concrete slab, the diamond is up to the task. “It can be incorporated into all kinds of tools to add to their strength and cutting ability,” Post said. Drill bits and saw blades are often enriched with tiny diamonds to make them less susceptible to wear.

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Diamond-encrusted blades like this are great for concrete and other solid materials.

Emilien Robert Vicol

Because diamond is so hard, it is also used as an abrasive; think sandpaper, but stronger. “When we polish specimens for some of the research we do, we use diamond paste,” Post said. Yes, that means the diamonds are polished with other diamonds.

Medical equipement

The durability of the diamond also comes in handy for delicate work. “You can sharpen it, and it will keep that shape because it doesn’t wear out,” Post said. The bit of a dental drill, for example, can be encrusted with diamonds so that dentists can precisely target tooth decay without dulling the tip.

Another of diamond’s superpowers is that it stays for itself, chemically speaking. “It’s very inert,” Post said, “so if you’re trying to protect the surface of something from reacting, a diamond coating is a really good way to do that.” This makes it a good candidate for use in medical procedures, where involuntary reactions can be dangerous.

Likewise, the diamond Was found to play well with the human immune system. It is unlikely to trigger a protective attack when introduced into the body. Thanks to this biocompatibility, to research suggests diamond is a promising material for prostheses and other medical implants.

scientific instruments

Such an inert material is also handy for covering science tools, since you don’t want troublesome chemical reactions interfering with what you’re trying to study. But Post pointed out that the diamond can also make a seeker’s life easier in other ways. “Diamond is transparent to most of the electromagnetic spectrum,” including most infrared, ultraviolet and visible light, he said.

In many types of experiments, a scientist may want to hit a small sample of material with a laser beam and capture the byproduct for analysis. Enclose this sample behind a diamond window and you have created a confined space for the laser to pass through.

In some labs you can also find a diamond anvil cell — an instrument which presses a specimen between the pointed ends of two diamonds. “You can achieve extremely high pressures this way,” Post said. “If you’re trying to understand what’s going on very deep in the Earth, this becomes the essential tool to do that.”

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Diamond anvil cells, like this one housed at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, use the remarkable force of diamond to exert enormous pressure on a sample.

Roy Kaltschmidt, © The Regents of the University of California, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Computing

Their ability to smash ruthlessly isn’t the only reason seekers are excited about diamonds. “Electronics is one of the areas where diamond has become very interesting and is still in the development phase,” Post said. Indeed, a diamond containing certain impurities in its structure behaves like a semiconductor, a material whose ability to conduct electricity can be manipulated.

Semiconductor materials are crucial for the manufacture of smartphones, computers and many other devices. Some believe that diamond-based components could fuel a leap forward in quantum computing, which makes these ultra-fast machines more compact and heat resistant.

“Diamond is one of the best conductors of heat,” Post said. “You can put a lot of tiny little components into a diamond computer, and not worry about generating heat like you do with silicon-based electronics.”

Planetary research

As useful as diamonds are in everyday life, they also provide the key to a far more mysterious world: the planet’s deep interior. The road traveled by a natural diamond to reach us is long. It is forged in the Earth’s upper mantle, about 100 miles deep, and eventually rises to the surface in a volcanic eruption. The whole process can take billions of years.

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Post and his colleagues analyzed diamond of hope, which is part of the Smithsonian collection and one of the most famous gems in the world, to determine how much boron it contains. Studying impurities like boron, which gives diamonds a blue tint, can help reveal the types of conditions under which the mineral formed.

Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institute

Thanks to their incredible robustness, diamonds can survive this turbulent journey with very little disruption to their chemical structures. “Everything that’s trapped in them stays trapped in them,” Post said. “It’s these nice little capsules that carry things from deep within the Earth to the surface so that we can actually study them.” The particles that lodge in a diamond’s structure are relics of the environment in which the crystal formed, so inspecting them can help scientists understand what this deep, ancient layer of the planet may have looked like.

“We know so little about the exact conditions — the soup, basically — from which these diamonds formed,” Post said. “They give us a glimpse of the chemistry, of the history, of a part of the Earth where we cannot hope to go.”

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