Will these inexpensive diamonds also be a girl's best friend?
Carbon — the building block of life on the planet — has been found to have a new solid phase, called Q-carbon. Carbon is already known to exist in various different solid forms including graphite and diamond, but Q-carbon is distinct because it can be used to make diamond-related structures at room temperature.
"We've now created a third solid phase of carbon," said Jay Narayan, lead author from North Carolina State University. "The only place it may be found in the natural world would be possibly in the core of some planets."
Q-carbon also has some strange characteristics. First, it is harder than diamond — diamond was considered to be the hardest natural material on Earth... until now. Second, it is ferromagnetic, meaning the magnetic fields of its atoms align, which the other solid phases of carbon are not. Third, Q-carbon glows when exposed to even low-energy levels.
"Q-carbon's strength and low work-function — its willingness to release electrons — make it very promising for developing new electronic display technologies," Narayan says. Even more exciting is the potential application of Q-carbon in the medical and technological industries by creating various forms of single-crystal diamond objects. It could also be extended to the jewelry industry in making diamond earrings, necklaces, you name it.
So how do they make Q-carbon? The scientists start with a surface of glass or plastic polymer and coat it with a form of carbon without a well-defined crystalline structure, called amorphous carbon. The carbon is then hit with short laser pulses increasing the temperature of the material to 4000 degrees Kelvin (6740 degree Fahrenheit), after which it cools and forms a thin layer of Q-carbon. By changing the surface material and duration of the laser pulses, scientists can create various forms of diamond structures.
Q-carbon would also be a lot cheaper to produce than laboratory-made diamonds, which require extreme heat and pressure, since the method works at room temperature and at ambient pressure.
"We can create diamond nanoneedles or microneedles, nanodots, or large-area diamond films, with applications for drug delivery, industrial processes and for creating high-temperature switches and power electronics," Narayan said.
Nanoneedles are extremely small needles used in high-precision medical techniques, and nanodots are super-small structures that create magnetic fields, as well as light-emitting devices.
Will there come a day when industries use Q-carbon nanodots over diamond ones? Possibly, but Q-carbon is not quite ready for use outside of the lab — there is still a lot to learn about this newly discovered material. "We can make Q-carbon films, and we're learning its properties, but we are still in the early stages of understanding how to manipulate it," Narayan said. "We know a lot about diamond, so we can make diamond nanodots. We don't yet know how to make Q-carbon nanodots or microneedles. That's something we're working on."
North Carolina State University has filed two pending patents on the Q-carbon and diamond creation techniques that are now pending.
Did you know there's a planet made up entirely of diamond? Learn more in 10 of the Strangest Planets in the Known Universe.