What a gem of an idea

What a gem of an idea

Diamonds may be forever, but they’re not so rare now that that scientists have discovered how to ‘grow’ them in a laboratory
This isn’t fiction. A retired American army officer visits Moscow to buy a security device, but while he’s there a scientist, Dr. Boris Feigelson, takes him aside to show him blueprints for something else, something developed for the Soviet space programme: a tumble-dryer-sized device that makes diamonds.

General Carter Clarke cannot believe his eyes, and buys three, ships them to America and founds Gemesis Cultured Diamonds.

The process was deceptively simple: take a seed, a slither of carbon material and put it into a chamber; add varying amounts of gases, including a carbon source, into the chamber; heat to a very high temperature to produce a plasma, in which the gases break down and carbon molecules attach themselves to the seed, causing it to grow; let your CVD, or Chemical Vapour

Deposition, simmer for a few days to a few weeks; remove gases; remove the now larger seed from the chamber and crack it open. There lies a diamond, chemically identical to diamonds out of the ground, as court cases have had to underline.

That initial process had a problem though: as a consequence of the nitrogen content of the gases used, it could only produce Coloured diamonds - canary yellows, sometimes lavenders and pinks. If that could be called a problem - after all, in nature coloured diamonds are rarer than the white variety.

But now that has been overcome. Last year Gemesis made a leap forward, by producing the largest, whitest, lab-created emerald-cut diamond to date. Washington Diamonds, another leading ‘diamond grower’, has recently produced a white, carat-sized stone too and claims to be months away from two carat stones.

“And that makes it a milestone,” says Clive Hill, Washington Diamonds’ CEO.

“A lot of people in the diamond industry have been keen to view such lab-grown diamonds as marginal. But this stone cannot be ignored.”

More than that, every lab-made diamond has one characteristic lauded in mined diamonds: each is flawless. Furthermore, each is around 25% the cost of mined equivalents. Lab-made diamonds have none of the environmental impact of mined diamonds, nor are associated with devastating African wars, and, unsurprisingly, the powerful companies that make their money from mined diamonds have been less than supportive of the idea.

Indeed, might that be it for the aura with which we have imbued a substance which, bar a small twist of chemistry - carbon atoms connecting in super-strong, ultra-hard 3d bonds rather than in layers - is little different from the soft graphite in your pencil? Neil Duttson, of ethical diamond dealers Duttson Rocks, says: “Despite some fear in the industry that lab-made diamonds will somehow take over, they are just different - a different product for a different customer,” says Duttson.

Over time, there is likely to be increased acceptance of the lab-made variety: there was similar resistance to cultured pearls when they were first created, and now they, not deep-dive pearls, account for the vast majority of all pearls sold. Coloured gemstones have long been lab-made by similar processes as those now being turned on diamonds; in fact, so extremely rare are large emeralds, for example, that they would be too expensive to sell - most sold have come out of the lab.

In the short term, the diamond market is expected to divide: between shoppers for whom increasingly influential green-thinking or price is a leading consideration, and those for whom the emotional content of a mined diamond - the fact that it has been created by awe-inspiring natural forces over countless eons - remains important.

“The whole market is touchy about lab-made diamonds,” says Tom Chatham, of diamond makers Chatham. “Stores don’t buy lab-made ones because they don’t have to - yet. There is good supply of diamonds - for the moment. But [unless some yet-to-be-devised technology makes the finding of and access to undiscovered diamond pipes feasible] we could be out of mined diamonds within 40 years.

But the debate over lab-made diamonds may be missing the point. What may prove of greater significance could be the application of diamonds in technology. According to Chatham, some billions of carats of softer, lower grade diamonds are already made each year for industrial purposes, their special properties making them ideal for cutting in particular. But, upgraded to the quality now feasible, white diamonds could also be used more readily in semi-conductors, optical devices, water purification systems, high-powered lasers and other electronics of tomorrow. Never mind the radical change to the world wrought by the silicon chip. The diamond chip could be key to making quantum computing a reality, with machines operating at speeds exponentially faster than currently.

Clive Hill says: “The potential for lab-made diamonds in applications are extremely exciting. I’d say that within a decade diamond products will be part of many of the technologies we use everyday. In fact, the very idea of what lab-grown diamonds’ use in technology could do gives me goose bumps. They could really change the world.”