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Physics + MathPhysics & Math

New Form of Carbon Is Magnetic, Fluorescent, Electroconductive, and Harder Than Diamond

ByTim De ChantNOVA NextNOVA Next
A scanning electron microscope image of diamonds made using the new technique.

It’s pretty simple, really—take a piece of glass, coat it with carbon, and zap it with a laser for a brief moment—but the results are pretty incredible.

Following that recipe, materials scientists working under Jay Narayan at North Carolina State University have created what they say is a new form of carbon, one that’s harder than diamond, conducts electricity, and glows when hit with the barest of energy. It’s even magnetic. “We didn’t even think that was possible,” Narayan said in a statement.

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They’re calling it Q-carbon.

Q-carbon’s laundry list of unusual properties means that potential applications could range from drill bits to electronics and medical devices.

Narayan and his colleagues created Q-carbon by coating a substrate with amorphous carbon—which doesn’t have any crystalline structure—and then hitting it with a laser for 200 nanoseconds. That short pulse is enough to heat the carbon to 6740˚ F. The intense heating and subsequent cooling arranges the atoms to form Q-carbon.

Here’s Jonah Bromwich, reporting for the New York Times:

Wuyi Wang, the director of research and development at the Gemological Institute of America and an expert on diamond geochemistry, said that while he would like to confirm the findings himself, “if they are true, it will be very exciting news for the diamond research community.”

He added that the journal is “quite credible” and he “pretty much trusts what they say.”

Since making Q-carbon requires only a laser, the process can be carried out at room temperature and pressure, a marked departure from other processes that make special forms of carbon that frequently require combinations of intense heat and pressure. So far, researchers have bene able to create Q-carbon films between 20 and 500 nanometers thick.

Narayan said that while the Q-carbon they made is entirely synthetic, it’s possible that it could form naturally deep in planetary cores.

Q-carbon’s properties could open a range of possible applications. Replacement joints could grow more durable thanks to its hardness, and drill bits could have more bite. Narayan also suggests that electronic displays may be able to take advantage of its dual properties of electroconductivity and fluorescence. For now, at least, Q-carbon’s future is wide open.

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Image credit: Jagdish Narayan and Anagh Bhaumik/NC State