Company NewsNovember 9, 2023

The key to exploring space might just be diamonds

By using lab-grown diamonds for industrial purposes, we can take humanity further than it’s ever been.
Avatar Shoshana Kranish

If you’ve never looked at a diamond and thought, “I bet we could use these for space exploration,” you’re not alone.

However, others have, in fact, looked at a gemstone and had that brilliant idea.

Turns out, what we’ve come to think of as a “girl’s best friend” has a lot more use cases than being a sparkly piece of jewelry. As an industrial tool, diamonds – and specifically lab-grown diamonds – are invaluable.

Why diamonds?

The hardest material on the planet, diamonds are the most thermally conductive material on the planet, five times more so than copper. Because of their hardness, they can be used in abrasives and cutting tools. Need to cut concrete? A diamond is actually a formidable tool to do so.

All of this might still sound a bit unbelievable. It’s hard to fathom taking an expensive gem and using it on a factory floor.

That’s because the diamonds being used in industry are lab-grown. Nearly all industrial-use diamonds are synthetic, actually. The lab-grown diamond business is a growing one, with the industry growing from $1 billion worth of synthetic gems being produced in 2016 to $12 billion in 2022.

“We found out from nature that diamonds have extraordinary properties,” said Travis Wade, Ph.D., founder and CEO of Massachusetts-based Evolve Diamonds. It was obvious to him, then, to replicate these gems in a controlled, scalable process.

The problem with naturally occurring diamonds, Wade added, is that they’re typically small and not uniform. While gems purchased for jewelry can have some degree of imperfection that’s undetectable to the untrained eye, the ones used in industrial practices need to be perfect and perfectly the same, every single time. Beyond that, when you’re mining diamonds, you’re limited to what’s in the mine itself. Lab-grown ones, on the other hand, are readily accessible, so long as you’ve got the right ingredients and machinery.

How is a sparkly stone the key ingredient in satellites and spacecrafts?

Space exploration comes with a whole host of challenges to overcome, with temperature being a significant one. Mars gets frigidly cold, while Venus is hotter than hot. Scientists tasked with designing probes and exploratory machines need to take into account the use of materials that can withstand extreme temperatures. And this is exactly where diamonds can make a world of difference in the success of space exploration.

Extreme heat has previously been a barrier to exploring Venus. Missions sent by both NASA and the Soviet Union burned up in 10 hours or less on the planet’s steamy surface. With a typical temperature soaring above 315° C (600° F), spacecraft landing there need special thermal protection or capabilities to do any amount of exploration or data collection.

Because diamonds can withstand extreme heat, they’re a viable material for the transistors used in scientific probes like rocket engines  and might be our ticket to exploring Venus. Unlike other materials previously used, like silicon carbide, these gems won’t disintegrate or burn when exposed to high temperatures. In fact, the way Wade creates his lab-grown diamonds — which he’s optimistic will eventually wind up on Venus — is in a high temperature chamber.

Wade uses SOLIDWORKS to design his diamond-making machines. The program, which he described as the “gold standard” of computer-aided design software, was available to him through the 3DEXPERIENCE Works for Startups program. Through it, his company, and others like it, are given free access to SOLIDWORKS for a year to get their business off the ground. It’s partially through this opportunity that Evolve Diamonds’ materials could come to be a defining component in the way diamonds shape the future of all kinds of machinery.

Evolve Diamonds produces their goods by adding methane and hydrogen to a windowed, low-pressure chamber, heating them up, ripping the atoms apart and creating a plasma with an internal temperature of approximately 4000° C. A seed crystal is then added, which attaches to the now-free carbon in the chamber, and after 3 weeks’ time, the machine produces a few millimeters of diamonds.

In addition to withstanding heat, diamonds can function as an energy-storing capacitor, operating similarly to a battery.

“If you want to store a large amount of electrical charge in a very small space without it leaking or breaking down, diamond is theoretically the best material for that,” Wade explained. The lab-grown varieties especially provide such a stable electrical, thermal and mechanical property that they’re a reliable component to use.

With consistent results and multiple functions, diamonds can offer a viable ticket to more successful space exploration.

Lab-grown diamonds: The gems that do it all

An excellent interplanetary travel tool, diamonds have a laundry list of other industrial applications.

As abrasives, they’re strong enough to cut through concrete. They can be used to fashion electrodes that can purify water, offering a new solution to wastewater treatment. They make excellent windows, since they’re crystal clear and thermally conductive. By adding an infinitesimal impurity, like one part per million of nitrogen instead of carbon, they can be used as a highly sensitive magnetometer. This type of tool can detect even the most minute changes in magnetic shifts, making them useful for everything from military applications to GPS to minimizing the size of an MRI machine. 

Perhaps most interesting, diamonds could offer a “theoretically perfect environment for a quantum circuit or sensor,” Wade said.

Quantum theories, which include gravity, mechanics and physics, attempt to understand the behavior and nature of subatomic particles. For years, quantum physicists have grappled with bringing ideas like string theory to life, but the inability to physically explore these concepts has meant little progress. While it might be decades into the future, it’s possible that diamonds could provide a glimpse of hope and a physical aid to delving further into quantum concepts involving space and our universe.

With such a wide variety of uses, it’s almost comical that the first image that comes to mind when we think of diamonds is an engagement ring. From purifying water to locating even the tiniest magnetic shifts, these gems can nearly do it all. They just might even take us further in space than we’ve ever been before.

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