Diamonds have been the most prized gem for centuries. Even as British colonialists discovered ample diamond supplies in South Africa in the late nineteenth century, making the formerly scarce resource plentiful, the gem retained its exclusive and precious appeal. Diamonds used to cost millions and were available only to royalty, but they have gradually become a middle-class luxury. Paradoxically, they are at once rare and something every woman should own, according to some. This is mainly due to the diamond industry, which has kept prices relatively high even as ample supplies were discovered.
Now, a new and more affordable option is available. Even expert jewelers struggle to tell the difference between lab grown and natural diamonds. The lab grown alternative is physically and chemically identical to its mined counterparts. Millennials are flocking to this cheaper option because it is believed to have a lesser environmental impact than traditional diamonds. But how are lab grown diamonds made? Do they have other uses besides adorning our engagement rings? And are they more sustainable than natural diamonds?
How diamonds are made
The Earth’s diamonds were created between 1 billion and 3 billion years ago. During this period, the planet was much hotter than it is today. The extreme heat and pressure allowed diamonds to form in the Earth’s mantle, about 100 miles underground. Under these conditions, carbon atoms bond together and forge the hardest material in the world.
The first labgrown diamonds were made to mimic the natural process, using a temperature of 1500C and intense pressure in a system called High Pressure High Temperature (HPHT). A “seed” diamond, from which the new diamonds can grow, is necessary to jump-start crystallization. The seed is placed in the middle of pure graphite carbon, allowing lab grown diamonds to grow.
Researchers have found a new and more efficient system in the past few years. Chemical Vapor Deposition (CVD) uses a carbon-rich gas and an 800C temperature to grow diamonds from a seed one carbon atom at a time. This advancement, among others, has allowed companies to grow diamonds faster and at a lower cost than previously. As a result, the price of lab grown diamonds has dropped significantly compared to just ten years ago.
The first lab grown diamonds were made in the 1950s. However, these early editions were not suited for jewelry because they had color and clarity issues. Instead, they were used in industry. Dr. H. Tracy Hall invented the first press that could produce synthetic diamonds while working for General Electric (GE). GE went on to make a fortune off Dr. Hall’s invention since lab grown diamonds had and continue to have many applications in industry. They rewarded Dr. Hall with a US savings bond worth ten dollars.
Lab grown diamonds have a lot of potential beyond being beautiful. Synthetic diamonds were used in technology long before they adorned engagement rings. Diamonds are used, for example, in abrasion tools, something they are well suited for as the hardest material on Earth. Since the 1960s, they have been used by the aerospace, oil, and stone-quarrying industries. They have also been used to make highly durable windows, resistant coating on tools, as anvils for experiments that use a lot of pressure, and much more.
Scientists have not paid too much attention to diamonds. Experimentation has been complex because diamonds are the most costly material to mine on Earth. The advent of lab grown diamonds is about to change this, and now lab grown diamonds might yield many more essential uses in science and technology.
To date, natural diamonds have already proved very useful in computing. They serve as conductivity enhancers in heatsinks, for example. However, conductivity was the extent of their use until scientists looked for materials to build a new generation of quantum computers.
Funnily enough, lab grown diamonds are a relatively accessible material for quantum computer researchers. With the drop in price point due to new technologies, researchers who could previously only dream of diamonds have access.
Lab grown diamonds have other scientific advantages over their natural counterparts. Natural diamonds have imperfections and irregularities, whereas lab grown diamonds can be made perfect and identical. This makes them ideal for experimentation since the consistency limits variability.
Hopefully, lab grown diamonds can help further many scientific advances in the coming years. They appear to be incredibly hopeful in the field of quantum computing.
Are lab grown diamonds more sustainable?
A 2014 report suggests that mined diamonds require twice as much energy as the lab grown alternative. Mining is also very harsh on the Earth and causes significant disruptions to local environments. For example, it is believed to pollute water due to acid mine drainage, which damages people and wildlife.
However, other reports claim that lab grown diamonds are responsible for more emissions than initially thought. Creating synthetic diamonds is energy-intensive, albeit probably a better environmental choice than mined diamonds.
Lab grown diamonds may have another advantage over mined diamonds regarding sustainability. Diamonds are one of the most conductive materials on Earth, far better than silicone and many others. This enables diamonds to lead electricity very efficiently, lessening the energy required. In other words, lab grown diamonds might help us build more efficient electric cars, for instance, in the future. In this way, it might be defensible to purchase a lab grown engagement ring since the research that goes into producing lab grown gems also help to further the study, which might lead to greener energy down the line.
Even so, if you are looking for the most sustainable option for a proposal, the best option is still vintage diamonds which don’t require any new energy in either mining or production.
Whether it is adorning our fingers or making the green cars of tomorrow, lab grown diamonds have a lot of potential uses. The improved technology for making them will continue to dazzle us in terms of beauty and scientific discovery.
If you want to study gems for yourself, check out our Gemstone Collection.