Scientists Create Plastic Diamonds: Evidence of Diamond Rain on Planets

Updated 5/9/2022 10:46 a.m.

  • Diamonds can form inside the ice giants Uranus and Neptune and fall towards the planet’s core. This is now confirmed by the experiment.
  • Consequently, the diamonds slowly build up a thick layer there.
  • This mechanism can be used on Earth to create mini diamonds.

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A group led by a researcher from Dresden created tiny plastic diamonds. The material was briefly heated to several thousand degrees using a powerful laser that separated the carbon from the other atoms and formed mini-diamonds, as reported by Dominik Kraus and his team at Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf in the journal Science Advances.

The experiment shows that diamonds can form inside the planets Uranus and Neptune and fall towards the planet’s core. In addition, their process could be used for the industrial production of nanodiamonds.

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As the laser power increases, the diamonds become larger

As a starting material, Kraus and colleagues used plastic that can be found everywhere: polyethylene terephthalate, PET for short, often used for plastic bottles. PET has an advantage over polystyrene (known as polystyrene) which the group used in previous experiments.

In addition to carbon and hydrogen, PET also contains oxygen. “The effect of oxygen was to accelerate the fission of carbon and hydrogen, which promoted the formation of nanodiamonds,” explains Kraus.

Scientists conducted their experiments at the National SLAC Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park (California, USA) because powerful X-ray lasers are available there. They used two methods to observe what was happening: X-ray diffraction and X-ray scattering at small angles.


Scientists conducted their experiments at the National SLAC Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, California, USA.

© dpa / Olivier Bonin / SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Using this method, they were able to prove that heating and compressing PET with a laser produces diamonds the size of nanometers (millionths of a millimeter). As the laser power increased, the diamonds grew, but only up to the melting point of the diamonds, which, due to the high pressure, is over 6000 degrees.

Diamonds on Uranus and Neptune can weigh millions of carats

The planets Uranus and Neptune are mainly composed of methane, water and ammonia, which form a very thick liquid. Laser experiments have shown that the calculated pressure inside the planets is sufficient to form diamonds.

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Scientists predict that the diamonds on Neptune and Uranus will be much larger than those produced in their experiments – possibly weighing millions of carats. Over the course of millennia, they could slowly sink into the planet’s ice sheets and gather into a thick layer around the planet’s solid core.

The team also found evidence that so-called period water may also be produced. “Oxygen atoms form a crystal lattice in which the hydrogen nuclei can move freely,” says Kraus, explaining the form of water that conducts electricity. Since these free-floating nuclei are electrically charged, water in the superionic state can conduct electricity and explain the unusual magnetic fields of Uranus and Neptune.

In the future, nanodiamonds could be produced much cleaner

Experiments could pave the way for the precise production of nanodiamonds, the researchers continue. “Until now, such diamonds have been produced mainly by shot blasting,” explains Kraus. With the help of laser flashes, they could be produced much cleaner in the future. While scientists still needed two laser shock waves for polystyrene, one was enough for PET.

Currently, nanodiamonds are mainly used in abrasives and polishing materials, but their use in science, medicine and electronics is growing. In the future, they could serve as highly sensitive quantum sensors and efficient reaction accelerators, for example for the separation of carbon dioxide (CO2) in a greenhouse gas. (ff / dpa)

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