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Laser gun turns plastic into tiny diamonds in blink of an eye

"So far, diamonds of this kind have mainly been produced by detonating explosives."

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Scattered diamonds on a black background. Raw diamonds and mining, a scattering of natural diamond stones. Graphite quartz. Natural stones and minerals.
(Pedal to the Stock via Shutterstock)

By Mark Waghorn via SWNS

Plastic has been turned into tiny diamonds in the blink of an eye- using a laser gun.

The precious gemstones were created after intensive beams were pointed at a thin film.

They are increasingly needed for sensors, vaccines and drugs - providing opportunities for recycling.

It could lead to more demand for water bottles and other containers - that often end up in the sea.

The breakthrough also has implications for planetary science - shedding fresh light on what goes on inside Neptune and Uranus.

via GIPHY

In tests, a sheet of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic used for packaging food and beverages was shot at.

The foil-like material briefly heated up to 10,832°F - generating a shock wave.

It compressed the matter to millions of times the atmospheric pressure - for a few billionths of a second.

The tiny nanodiamonds were forged under extreme pressure, explained the international team.

"So far, diamonds of this kind have mainly been produced by detonating explosives. With the help of laser flashes, they could be manufactured much more cleanly in the future," said Professor Dominik Kraus, of the University of Rostock and a co-author of the study.

A high-performance laser would fire ten flashes per second at a PET film which is illuminated by the beam at intervals of a tenth of a second.

Nanodiamonds would shoot out of the film and land in a collecting tank filled with water. There they are decelerated and can then be filtered and effectively harvested.

"The nanodiamonds could be custom cut with regard to size or even doping with other atoms. The X-ray laser means we have a lab tool that can precisely control the diamonds' growth," Kraus said.

The analysis was carried out using the state-of-the-art LCLS (Linac Coherent Light Source) in California which takes X-ray snapshots of atoms and molecules at work.

"Up to now, we used hydrocarbon films for these kinds of experiment. And we discovered that this extreme pressure produced tiny diamonds, known as nanodiamonds," Kraus said.

But they only part simulated the interior of planets at the edge of the solar system. Ice giants contain carbon, hydrogen and vast amounts of oxygen.

So the group hit on everyday PET, the resin out of which ordinary plastic bottles are made.

"PET has a good balance between carbon, hydrogen and oxygen to simulate the activity in ice planets," Kraus said.

Tailored production of nanometer-sized diamonds are already included in abrasives and polishing agents.

The study in Science Advances established the new method of producing diamonds - and confirmed it really does rain diamonds inside ice giants at the solar system's edge.

"The effect of the oxygen was to accelerate the splitting of the carbon and hydrogen and thus encourage the formation of nanodiamonds," Kraus said.

"It meant the carbon atoms could combine more easily and form diamonds."

Ice giants are now believed to be the most common form of planet outside the solar system.

Temperatures on Neptune and Uranus reach several thousand degrees Fahrenheit. The pressure is millions of times greater than Earth's atmosphere.

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