Ordinary plastic transformed into diamonds by laser beam in the blink of an eye

plastic diamond – cc Steve Jurvetson

A thin film of plastic was, for the first time, transformed into tiny diamonds in the blink of an eye after being targeted by a laser beam.

Synthetic diamonds are valuable for their hardness and are used to make high quality cutting and polishing tools, but also for their thermal conductivity and electrical insulation.

Opening up production of synthetic diamonds from plastic could lead to increased demand for water bottles and other containers that often end up in the sea.

The breakthrough also has implications for planetary science, and researchers who handled this philosopher’s transformation to stone said it sheds light on what’s going on inside the ice giants Neptune and Uranus.

How exactly did something that costs pennies turn into the hardest and one of the rarest minerals on Earth?

At their fundamental level, diamonds are simply a solid form of carbon, arranged in a particular crystal structure alongside hydrogen and oxygen.

In tests, a PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic sheet used for food and beverage packaging was heated by a laser beam up to 6000°C. PET is made of petroleum, known in the industry as “hydrocarbon”.

The test compressed the plastic under a weight equal to millions of times Earth’s atmospheric pressure for a few billionths of a second. This incredible experiment reconfigured the molecules of the plastic into a nanodiamond.

“Until now, diamonds of this type have mainly been produced by detonating explosives,” said Professor Dominik Kraus, of the University of Rostock, Germany, and co-author of the study. “With the help of laser flashes, they could be made much cleaner in the future.”

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The laser fired ten flashes on the plastic film, after which the nanodiamonds formed and fell into a collection tank filled with water. There they are slowed down and can then be filtered and reassembled.

“Until now, we used hydrocarbon films for this kind of experiments. And we found that this extreme pressure produced tiny diamonds,” Krauss explained. “PET has a good balance of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen to simulate the activity of ice planets.”

Proving it can be done with plastic takes the concept to a whole new level of convenience for production on Earth, and also reveals how nanodiamonds could form in large quantities on ice giants like Neptune and Uranus.

Ice giants contain carbon, hydrogen and large amounts of oxygen. The new study published in Scientists progress confirmed that it really was raining diamonds inside the ice giants at the edge of the solar system.

“The oxygen had the effect of accelerating the separation of carbon and hydrogen and therefore promoting the formation of nanodiamonds. This meant that carbon atoms could combine more easily and form diamonds.

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Temperatures inside Neptune and Uranus reach several thousand degrees Celsius, and the pressure is millions of times greater than that of Earth’s atmosphere. Above, the outer gas atmosphere is one of the coldest places in the solar system.

This creates storms which produce hailstones of diamonds. Scientists believed this was the case for 40 years, and recent studies further reinforced this hypothesis.

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