It’s one of the hardest materials in the universe. It’s utterly clear, virtually frictionless, chemically inert, and an excellent conductor of heat. And it’s made of one of the most common elements: carbon. Diamond—just carbon crystal, really—is exceedingly useful in fields from microelectronics to water treatment. Unfortunately, large diamonds are also exceedingly rare. But imagine if the stuff were as ubiquitous as steel.
Stephen Bates might just make that happen. In addition to working for places like NASA and Princeton, the 64-year-old journeyman scientist spent a few years at General Motors, where he built a transparent piston engine using sapphire, yielding an unprecedented view of the flow of flames and gases. That sapphire motor got Bates thinking about diamond. “Anything you can do with sapphire would work better with diamond, if you could afford it,” he says.
After immersing himself in research on the synthesis of crystals in thin films via a process called vapor deposition, Bates patented a method for doing the same thing for diamonds. The concept is simple: Pack diamond grit, an inexpensive industrial product, into a mold with vaporized C60 fullerene—a soccer-ball-shaped cage of 60 carbon atoms. Then blast the whole thing with a laser beam. The fullerene breaks apart, and carbon condenses between the diamond particles, effectively fusing them into a relatively solid mass.
Even if the method proves technically and economically feasible, the resulting material would be porous, and no one really knows what properties porous diamond would have. Step one is for Bates to acquire a $100,000 pulsed laser. But if it works? Imagine diamond foundations beneath your home, diamond girders in skyscrapers, diamond bones in your legs, and diamond parts for airplanes and spaceships. Just don’t plan on an all-diamond house—walls made of the world’s best heat conductor would make for a pretty chilly place. —Ted Greenwald