Scientists Turn Plastic Into Diamonds In Breakthrough

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Since the 1970s, scientists believed that diamonds might actually rain down toward the mostly slushy planets’ rocky interiors—a diamond rain, if you will.

In 2017, researchers in Germany and California found a way to replicate those planetary conditions, fabricating teeny tiny diamonds called nanodiamonds in the lab using polystyrene (aka Styrofoam). Five years later and they’re back at it again, this time using some good ol’ polyethylene terephthalate (PET), according to a study published on Friday in Science Advances. The research has implications not only for our understanding of space, but paves a path toward creating nanodiamonds that are used in a range of contexts out of waste plastic.

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When Kraus and his colleagues first attempted making nanodiamonds with polystyrene—which contains the same elements of carbon and hydrogen found on Neptune and Uranus—they did so by bombarding the material with the Linac Coherent Light Source, a high-powered X-ray laser at the SLAC National Acceleratory Laboratory in California. This process rapidly heated the polystyrene to 5,000 Kelvin (around 8,540 degrees Fahrenheit) and compressed it by 150 gigapascals, similar to conditions found about 6,000 miles into the interior of the icy planets.

While the researchers were able to make the microscopic bling with two quick hits from the laser, they later realized one vital chemical ingredient was missing: oxygen. So they turned to PET, which has a good balance of not only carbon and hydrogen but also oxygen, making it a closer chemical proxy to the ice giants than polystyrene.

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“We found that the presence of oxygen enhances diamond formation instead of preventing it, making ‘diamond rain’ inside those planets a more likely scenario,” said Kraus. “We [also] see that diamonds grow larger for higher pressures and with progressing time in the experiments.”

They were also able to squeeze out a lot of tiny diamonds from just one shot of X-ray, on the order of a few billion crystallites (or a few micrograms if you’re talking total weight).

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“If industrial scaling of the formation process indeed works as discussed above, and nanodiamonds will be required in very large quantitates for certain processes, e.g., catalysis for light-induced CO2 reduction reactions helping to reduce global warming, this may indeed become a potential way to recycle large amounts of PET,”  said Kraus.

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Source: Scientists Turn Plastic Into Diamonds In Breakthrough

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