What comes to mind when you think of diamonds? Most of us think of sparkling rings or eye-catching necklaces, but diamonds are not limited to jewelry. Did you know diamonds are also used in industrial settings? Thanks to the team of innovators behind diamond synthesis, a multibillion-dollar industry developed and more than 100 tons or 450 million carats of synthetic diamonds are now produced annually for industrial use.
The effort to create diamond chips that would be suitable for industrial applications began as a secret project. With Project Superpressure, GE Research Laboratories brought together a group of researchers including National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductees Francis Bundy, Tracy Hall, Herbert Strong and Robert Wentorf.
The four researchers knew that graphite, a pure carbon substance, was key to creating synthetic diamonds. They discovered, however, that graphite was resistant to change due to the strong bonding of carbon atoms. By using iron sulfide as a catalyst to weaken the carbon bonds and applying high pressure, they believed they could turn the weakened graphite into manmade diamonds for the first time.
Success came for the Project Superpressure team when they performed an experiment using a high-pressure press called a belt, in which two diamond seed crystals, plus carbon and iron sulfide, were placed together in a graphite heater. This combination was then heated to 1,600 C (2,912 F) under 100,000 atmospheres of pressure, and 38 minutes later, “octahedron diamond crystals emerged from the belt.” After successfully reproducing these results, news of the team’s groundbreaking work in creating the world’s first manmade diamonds was published in February 1955.
The natural diamonds often used in jewelry are valued based on their cut, carat, color and clarity, but their synthetic counterparts offer different characteristics, particularly hardness and heat conductivity, that make them ideal for industrial use. In fact, while both natural and synthetic diamonds have industrial uses, the latter are used in 90% of industrial applications worldwide.
Synthetic diamonds are ideal for cutting, sanding, grinding, drilling and polishing, and those offering high thermal conductivity also can be used in high-tech applications and optics. What’s more, lab-made diamonds provide industries with greater versatility. Diamond manufacturers are able to control properties including hardness, heat conductivity and electron mobility to meet the varying requirements for different applications.
For their work in developing the world’s first synthetic diamonds and their impact on a wide array of industries, Bundy, Hall, Strong and Wentorf were inducted into NIHF in 2010. To learn more about these innovators and hundreds of other inspiring Inductees, we invite you to visit our website.