Synthetic Diamonds

 
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Synthetic Diamonds


Diamonds are a crystalline form ("allotrope") of the element Carbon, albeit sometimes with impurities due to the presence of other elements such as Nitrogen or Boron (these impurities often result in diamond colors.

The first diamonds that humans encountered, were natural diamonds formed deep within the Earth (in the mantle) by high pressures and temperatures. These were brought to the surface (or at least closer to the surface so they could be mined) by volcanic processes.

The discovery that diamonds were basically pure Carbon was first made in 1797. As a result, many attempts were made to synthesize diamonds from cheaper forms of carbon. The most noteworthy of these early attempts to synthesize diamond were a series of experiments by Ferdinand Frédéric Henri Moissan in the 1890s, in which Mossian used the then newly developed electric arc furnace. Although Moissan reported success, other scientists were mostly unable to repeat his experiments, and in 1928, Sir Charles Algernon Parsons, who had spent 40 years trying to replicate the experiments (and meticuously recording every detail of his attempted replications), expressed his view in article by C. H. Desch, that no diamonds had been produced at all using this method.

Ferdinand Frédéric Henri Moissan attempting to synthesize diamonds:
Ferdinand Frédéric Henri Moissan attempting to synthesize diamonds

A modern belt press:
Belt Press
The next chapter in the sotry, came in 1941, when the General Electric (GE), Norton, and Carborundum companies signed an agreement to work together on the synthesis of diamond. Although the work was interrupted by World War II, the project was ultimately successful in 1954, with the development of the first commercially successful synthesis of diamond. The process developed was a HPHT (High Pressure High Temperature) process, using a "belt" press which could achieve pressures of 1,500,000 psi (10 GPa) and temperatures of 3,630°F (2,000°C). Subsequently other HPHT processes and equipment were developed, including by the same researchers - to avoid violating a U.S. Department of Commerce secrecy order on the GE patent applications.

Today, natural diamonds still dominate the market, especially in the case of gemstones, but it is also possible to create diamonds artificially, that is "synthetic diamonds", or "artificial diamonds&qupt;. Please note: that synthetic or artificial diamonds should not be confused with simulant diamonds - they are completely different:
  • Synthetic/Artificial Diamonds are diamonds that have almost exactly the same chemical composition as natural diamonds (that is to say they are made of crystalline Carbon), but they are made artificially (rather than formed within the Earth) by industrial processes. As a result, synthetic/artificial diamonds can be very hard to distinguish from natural diamonds, although gemologists have devised special methods to tell them apart (synthetic/artificial diamonds are usually considered less valuable than natural diamonds).

  • Simulant diamonds (also known as "diamond simulants") are completely different materials from diamond - for example they might be glass, cubic zirconia, or silicon carbide (moissanite). These materials simply look a bit like diamond, although they have drastically different physical and chemical properties (so are relatively easy to distinguish from diamonds).
Once somebody explains the difference between natural, synthetic, and simulant diamonds it is easy to understand the difference in meaning, however to most people, who have not received such an explanation, it can be confusing. For this reason, in the United States, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has suggested that instead of referring to "synthetic diamonds" or "artificial diamonds", alternative terms would be better. These alternative terms could include "laboratory-grown", "laboratory-created", and "[manufacturer-name]-created", and in the orders of the FTC "would more clearly communicate the nature of the stone".

Regardless of what we call them, currently there are two main methods for producing synthetic diamonds:
Schematic of a belt press used in HPHT diamond synthesis:
Schematic of a belt press used in HPHT diamond synthesis
  1. A HPHT (High Pressure High Temperature) process which simulates conditions in the Earth's mantle.

    Synthetic diamonds produced by the HPHT process:
    Synthetic diamonds produced by the HPHT process


  2. A CVD (Chemical Vapor Deposition) process in which a gaseous carbon is deposited on a substrate. CVD potentially allows very large diamonds to be grown for industrial applications.
In addition, to these, there are also two other processes that can be used to produce very small diamonds:
  1. Detonation of explosives - Carbon-containing explosives are detonated in a metal chamber, and this produces very tiny diamonds of upto about 5 nanometers in diameter. These very tiny diamonds are primarily used in industrial applications, especially polishing.

  2. Ultrasonic cavitation - Suspending graphite (another form of carbon) in an organic solvent and using ultrasonic cavitation can create diamonds approximately 1 micron in diameter. At the time of writing, there is no industrial or gemological application for this process, but research is still proceeding into improving the process, and utilizing the results.



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