Lasers can turn plastic into diamonds, scientists say

Personal jewelry preferences aside, diamonds have undeniable appeal. Part of that attraction stems from their relative rarity. After all, people have waged wars and committed crimes to get their hands on them. If you have already seen the movie blood diamondyou also know the disturbing history of slavery associated with the extraction of the precious commodity.

So, you can imagine the shock felt by the scientific community with the recent announcement that standard plastic becomes mini diamonds when bombarded with lasers! Keep reading to learn more about this ultimate transformation from trash to treasure.

Trash turned into treasure

What happens when you attack cheap plastic sheets with powerful lasers? This is the question that a group of European researchers decided to explore. The results made jaws drop when bits of waste became ‘nanodiamants’.

What are nanodiamonds? These are tiny gemstones that are only a few billionths of a meter (i.e. nanometers) in size. In other words, they are not a path to cheap jewelry.

Yet they come with a surprising number of possible applications. As a German physicist and co-author of the study Dominik Kraus notes, “Nanodiamonds could…be used as ultra-small and highly accurate quantum sensors for temperature and magnetic fields, which may result in a plethora of applications.”

A myriad of applications for nanodiamonds

Potential uses for nanodiamonds abound, providing scientists with an exciting avenue for future discoveries. Possible applications include their use to convert carbon dioxide into other gases. Some researchers believe they could be used to deliver drugs to specific parts of the human body. The researchers also hope this line of study will help solve the current problem of plastic pollution plaguing the world’s oceans.

plastic pollution

What we can learn from nanodiamonds does not stop there. After all, they resemble substances found on planetary ice giants like Neptune and Uranus. These planets have long baffled scientists, but with the help of plastic diamonds, they may soon get answers. Obviously, these discoveries are not limited to the fabric of the smallest engagement ring in the world!

Implications of Nanodiamond Research

As for the specifics of the experiment, the physicists used a sheet of polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, plastic. (Basically the same stuff found in soda and water bottles.) After superheating the material – we’re talking 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit – for a billionth of a second, big changes took place.

The heat mimicked Earth’s atmospheric pressures, only millions of times stronger. The almost instantaneous process hyper-compressed the plastic, altering its molecular structure. The carbon in the plastic has crystallized, allowing oxygen and hydrogen to escape. The crystallized carbon created nanodiamonds. As for oxygen and hydrogen, they have become “superionic water” or “superionic ice”.

This superheated ice may represent the most common form of water in the universe, and one that conducts electricity better than old-fashioned wet stuff. The process of “demixing” carbon, oxygen and hydrogen at the molecular level may also involve the presence of an infinite number of diamonds (and water) on Neptune and Uranus. What does all this mean? We will have to wait and see. But one thing is certain: “Nanodiamonds are a scientist’s best friend.”

By Engrid Barnett, contributor for


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Source: Lasers can turn plastic into diamonds, scientists say

Sarah C. Figueiredo