Researchers from North Carolina State University say they’ve found a new form of solid carbon, and that discovery has allowed them to make diamonds much easier.
The new form or “phase” of carbon is called Q-carbon; other forms for solid carbon include graphite (think lead pencils) and diamonds.
The discovery allows diamond-like structures to be made at room temperature and at ambient atmospheric pressure in air.
“We’ve now created a third solid phase of carbon,” says Jay Narayan, lead author of the study. “The only place it may be found in the natural world would be possibly in the core of some planets.”
Q-carbon is made by using a base like sapphire, glass or a plastic then layering on “amorphous carbon” – essentially carbon without a well-defined crystal structure. Lasers then heat and cool the carbon rapidly, and the result is a film of Q-carbon, which the researchers say is harder than diamond, which are already some of the hardest known substances to humans.
So how would these micro-diamond-carbon structures be used? They could replace diamond on drills or cutting devices, for starters.
“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 says. “These diamond objects have a single-crystalline structure, making them stronger than polycrystalline materials. And it is all done at room temperature and at ambient atmosphere – we’re basically using a laser like the ones used for laser eye surgery. So, not only does this allow us to develop new applications, but the process itself is relatively inexpensive.”
Could Q-carbon become a more enduring symbol of love than diamonds? Not yet. Researchers have not been able to make the Q-carbon layer much thicker than a film.
“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 says. “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.”