Simply Brilliant: UF/Russian Team Makes Gem-Quality Diamonds

August 18, 1999

GAINESVILLE — Like Superman squeezing a lump of coal in his mighty fist, scientists and engineers from the University of Florida and Russia are speeding up Mother Nature’s handiwork through creating gem-quality diamonds with man-made heat and pressure.

Using what they describe as a remarkable new technology first developed in Russia, the team has created yellow, amber, green and colorless diamonds as large as 1.6 carats since making their first attempt about a year ago. The research, funded largely by a company that intends to sell what it calls “cultured diamonds” for jewelry, is leading to a better understanding of how to make diamonds and other crystals not only for jewelry, but also for next-generation high-speed electronics.

“Our goal has been to understand the science and technology behind growing crystals,” said Reza Abbaschian, chairman of UF’s materials science and engineering department.

People have been able to make gem-quality diamonds since the 1960s, but the machines were huge and the cost exceeded that of mining natural diamonds, Abbaschian said. As a result, diamond research and manufacturing efforts have centered on producing industrial diamonds for cutting tools, abrasive materials or other uses.

In the 1980s, however, a team of Russian scientists in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk developed a small, high-pressure, high-temperature machine capable of making low-cost, gem-quality diamonds.

About the size of a washing machine, the device starts with a carbon source and a shard of a real diamond called a “seed.” The machine squeezes the seed with increasingly higher pressure topping out at 850,000 pounds per square inch. Other equipment heats the core to 2,000 to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The high pressure and high temperatures transform the seed into a bigger diamond.

The machines require very little electricity and are not expensive to build, but the Russian researchers were unable to make them consistently produce diamonds of the same color or quality, Abbaschian said. That’s where UF’s research came in.

“Our objective has been to be able to control the process,” he said. “Once we control the processing parameters, we can modify them to get different results.”

Since the UF/Russian team attempted to make its first diamond in one of five machines imported from Russia about a year ago, the team has made more than 230 crystals at UF, many of them gem-quality diamonds. Though the largest so far is 1.6 carats, the machines theoretically should be capable of producing diamonds up to 5 carats, Abbaschian said. It takes about 50 hours to grow a one-carat diamond, he said.

Like natural diamonds, the UF-produced diamonds are 100 percent carbon and harder than any natural substance. A typical jeweler could not distinguish between natural diamonds and the UF ones, Abbaschian said The only difference is at the atomic level; natural diamonds have paired nitrogen impurity atoms while UF diamonds have single atoms.

The Gemesis Corp., a small Florida company, plans to draw on the research to produce diamonds for jewelry at a facility in Gainesville, said Carter Clarke, chief executive officer. “What Dr. Abbaschian and his crew have done is to turn this scientific endeavor into a commercially viable enterprise,” said Clarke, an entrepreneur and retired U.S. Army general. “We know now that we can produce a quality, consistent product.”

The UF/Russian research team hopes to take the project far beyond gem-quality diamonds. Abbaschian said diamonds with certain properties are highly effective semiconductors capable of operating at higher power and temperatures than traditional silicon semiconductors. Natural diamonds with such properties are extremely rare, and the UF/Russian team hopes to use the machines to learn more about whether and how such diamonds might be created.

The UF team is composed of Abbaschian; Rajiv Singh, a professor of materials science and engineering; and Robert Chodelka, a research faculty member. The Russian members are Alexander Novikov, Nikolay Patrin, Vasili Kacholov and Lidia Patrina.