Diamonds On Demand

Most of us know that diamonds are mined from the earth, but did you know that they can also be grown in the laboratory?

AsianScientist (Apr. 4, 2015) – Diamonds are must-haves on engagement rings, in addition to being a universal symbol of class and status. It is thus no surprise that upwards of US$79 billion is generated globally from the sale of these precious gemstones every year. Luxury diamond retailer Tiffany & Co. attributes more than a third of its global sales to buyers the Asia-Pacific region, with China leading the way.

While diamonds are treasured for their lustrous appearance, putting them on rings and necklaces does little justice to their many superlative properties. They are the hardest natural material known to man, resistant to most acids and alkalis, and excellent heat conductors.

Such properties make diamonds ideal for a variety of applications, including writing plates and cataract operation knives. CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, where the existence of the Higgs Boson was confirmed, uses diamonds in their particle sensors. Indeed, the World Diamond Council suggests that up to 70 percent of diamonds are sold for industrial uses such cutting, drilling, grinding and polishing.

Diamond Growing 101

Part of their feted value as gemstones lies in their supposed rarity. Like all minerals, they take billions of years to form, and under very specific conditions beneath the Earth’s surface. As such, there is a very finite supply, most of it in Africa. It is no surprise, then, that scientists have turned to artificially growing diamonds in the lab.

Synthetic diamonds—where the stones are not themselves fake, but produced by artificial methods rather than nature—form a growing industry, and are used in drill bits, saw blades and even cosmetics. Companies such as the US-based Gemesis use a high-pressure, high-temperature method to make their diamonds: a natural diamond ‘seed’ is bathed in molten graphite and catalyst, upon which carbon precipitates. From this, a gem-quality diamond can be grown in less than a week.

Another popular method of artificially creating diamonds is through a common semi-conductor process called chemical vapor deposition (CVD). Here, in a low pressure environment, a mixture of methane and hydrogen are fed into a chamber, where they react to give carbon-containing free radicals. These radicals form up with the diamond seed, forming new diamond bonds.

UK-based company Element Six (owned by diamond giant De Beers) is one of the many companies already selling CVD-grown lab diamonds but Asia has its own contenders, including Singapore-based IIa Technologies, whose name refers to a diamond grade that has less than one part per million of impurities.

Lab-grown diamonds are a wallet’s best friend

For those among us who balk at the cost of earth mined diamonds, lab diamonds are just the thing for you. Because diamond mining is both dangerous and resource intensive, earth mined gems come with a steep price tag.

“Pure lab-grown diamonds such as ours can cost 30 to 40 percent less than mined diamonds,” said Professor Devi Shankar Misra, co-founder of IIa Technologies.

Skeptics may believe that differences exist, but lab diamonds are chemically and optically identical to their earth mined counterparts, confusing even certified jewelers.

“They have the same carbon-based crystal arrangement as mined diamonds—there is no physical difference. Instead of taking billions of years under the Earth, our diamonds are grown in a clean, reduced conflict environment,” he noted.

Lab diamonds are free of defects and inclusions—flawless, even—due to the ability to precisely control the nucleation and growth of diamonds in a laboratory setting. Additionally, they do not come in odd shapes and sizes, and can be cut proportionally and symmetrically. As such, lab-grown gems are favored in electronics, Misra told Asian Scientist Magazine.

“The quality requirement for electronics is even more stringent than for gemstones. Hence, there are opportunities for our diamonds to be used in important medical technologies, such as radiation dosimeters for cancer therapy, and X-ray detectors,” he said.

A (lab) diamond lasts forever

For some, lab-grown stones lack the romance of natural diamonds that have spent billions of years growing deep beneath the Earth’s surface. Yet, it must be remembered that the mining of natural diamonds has led to immense ecological damage. In some cases, diamonds have been mined in conflict regions and sold to finance civil wars. Blood diamonds, as they have been called, are thus indirectly linked to violence.

Hence, for the more pragmatic among us, lab diamonds are not only easier on the pocket, they are also eco-friendly and equally brilliant as earth mined stones.

With any luck, we will not only see more engagement rings adorned with lab-grown stones, we will also see a whole array of industrial applications springing from its ready availability and affordable prices.


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Yamini graduated with a bachelors degree in biomedical sciences from the University of Manchester, UK. She has a passion for science and how it is perceived by the wider community.

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