Friday, June 20, 2008

Diamonds, Made to Order

Interesting article in Smithsonian Magazine on companies making gem quality diamonds. Evidently, the best machine made diamonds are indistinguishable from natural diamonds.
"This is a virtual diamond mine," says Apollo CEO Bryant Linares when I arrive at the company's secret location, where diamonds are made. "If we were in Africa, we'd have barbed wire, security guards and watch towers. We can't do that in Massachusetts." Apollo's directors worry about theft, corporate spies and their own safety. When Linares was at a diamond conference a few years ago, he says, a man he declines to describe slipped behind him as he was walking out of a hotel meeting room and said someone from a natural diamond company just might put a bullet in his head. "It was a scary moment," Linares recalls.

Bryant's father, Robert Linares, working with a collaborator who became a co-founder of Apollo, invented the company's diamond-growing technique. Robert escorts me into one of the company's production rooms, a long hall filled with four refrigerator-size chambers bristling with tubes and gauges. As technicians walk past in scrubs and lab coats, I glance inside the porthole window of one of the machines. A kryptonite-green cloud fills the top of the chamber; at the bottom are 16 button-size disks, each one glowing a hazy pink. "Doesn't look like anything, right?" Robert says. "But they will be half-caraters in a few weeks."

In 1796, chemist Smithson Tennant discovered that diamond is made out of carbon. But only since the 1950s have scientists managed to produce diamonds, forging them out of graphite subjected to temperatures as high as 2,550 degrees Fahrenheit and pressures 55,000 times greater than that of earth's atmosphere. But the stones were small and impure. Only the grit was useful, mostly for industrial applications such as dental drills and hacksaw blades. Over the past decade, however, researchers such as Linares have perfected a chemical process that grows diamonds as pure and nearly as big as the finest specimens hauled out of the ground. The process, chemical vapor deposition (CVD), passes a carbon gas cloud over diamond seeds in a vacuum chamber heated to more than 1,800 degrees. A diamond grows as carbon crystallizes on top of the seed.
Fascinating. Soon, diamonds may be a girl's best man-made friend. :) Although, to be sure, the romantic in me is still enamored of the idea of natural diamonds, forged by tremendous heat and pressure millions of years ago in the earth's crust, the hardest naturally-occurring substance known, and a symbol of strength, beauty, and enduring love.

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