Scientists discover lasers can turn plastic into diamonds

Aside from personal jewelry preferences, diamonds have an unmistakable allure. Part of that appeal is due to their relative rarity. After all, people have waged wars and committed crimes to get their hands on them. If you’ve seen the movie before blood diamondalso know about the disturbing history of slavery linked to the mining of the precious raw material.

So you can imagine the shock the scientific community felt at the recent announcement that standard plastic becomes mini-diamonds when bombarded by lasers! Read on to learn more about this ultimate garbage-to-treasure transformation.

Garbage turned into treasure

What happens when you attack cheap plastic plates with high-powered lasers? A group of European researchers wanted to address this question. The jaw-dropping results as chunks of junk turned into ‘nanodiamonds’.

What are nanodiamonds? They are tiny gems measuring just a few billionths of a meter (aka nanometers). In other words, they are not a route to cheap jewelry.

Nevertheless, they offer a surprising number of possible applications. As a German physicist and co-author of the study Dominik Kraus states: “Nanodiamonds could … be used as ultra-small and very precise quantum sensors for temperature and magnetic fields, which could lead to a plethora of applications.”

Countless applications for nanodiamonds

The potential applications for nanodiamonds are diverse and offer scientists an exciting avenue for future discoveries. Potential applications include their use to convert carbon dioxide into other gases. Some researchers believe they could be used to deliver drugs to specific parts of the human body. The researchers also hope that this field of study will help solve the current problem of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans.

plastic pollution

What we can learn from nanodiamonds doesn’t end there. After all, they look like substances found on planetary ice giants like Neptune and Uranus. These planets have long baffled scientists, but with the help of diamonds turned into plastic, they may soon have some answers. There is clearly more to these finds than just the smallest engagement ring in the world!

Implications of nanodiamond research

Referring to the specifics of the experiment, the physicists used a sheet of polyethylene terephthalate or PET plastic. (Basically the same material found in soda and water bottles.) After the material was superheated for a billionth of a second — we’re talking 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit — big changes happened.

The heat mimicked Earth’s atmospheric pressure, only a million times stronger. The almost instantaneous process has hypercompressed the plastic and changed its molecular structure. The carbon contained in the plastic crystallized out, allowing oxygen and hydrogen to escape. The crystallized carbon produced nanodiamonds. Oxygen and hydrogen became “superionic water” or “superionic ice”.

This superheated ice could represent the most common form of water in the universe, and one that conducts electricity better than the old-fashioned wet stuff. The process of “segregation” of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen at the molecular level may also imply the presence of infinite diamonds (and water) on Neptune and Uranus. What’s that supposed to mean? We have to wait. But one thing is certain: “Nanodiamonds are a scientist’s best friend.”


By Engrid Barnett, contributor for Ripleys.com

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Source: Scientists discover lasers can turn plastic into diamonds

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