Diamonds - A Scientific Explanation
Diamonds are carbon in its most
concentrated form. Except for trace impurities like boron and nitrogen,
diamonds are composed solely of carbon, the chemical element that
is fundamental to all life.
But diamonds are distinctly different from their
close cousins, the common mineral graphite and lonsdaleite, both
of which are also composed of carbon. Why are diamonds the hardest
surfaces known, while graphite is exceedingly soft? Why are diamonds
transparent while graphite is opaque and metallic black? What is
it that makes diamonds so unique?
The key to these questions lie in a diamonds particular
arrangement of carbon atoms or its crystal structure--the feature
that defines any mineral's fundamental properties. A crystal is
a solid body formed from the bonding of atomic elements or compounds
in a repeating arrangement. Often, crystals possess smooth external
faces. Due to their symmetrical and finite nature, the building
blocks of crystals are limited to relatively small numbers of atoms,
and their chemical compositions to simple numerical combinations
Hardness & Durability
Diamonds are renowned for their hardness. Hardness is the measure
of a substances resistance to being scratched, and only a diamond
can scratch another diamond. Diamonds are the hardest substances
Hardness is not the only measure of
a mineral's durability--the relative resistance to fracture is another.
Although diamonds are not fragile or prone to breaking apart, all
substances including diamonds can fracture or shatter. Due to their
particular crystal structure, diamonds have certain planes of weakness
along which they can be split.
Brilliance & Luster
Diamonds brilliance and luster are two of its most valued attributes.
The science behind such phenomena is a diamonds great ability to
refract light; that is, to bend or slow light as it passes through
it. The amount that a substance can impact light in these ways is
quantified in its refractive index.
Science postulates the speed of light in a vacuum
to be about 186,000 miles per second. But the velocity of light
is slowed whenever it is forced to interact with the electrons of
a substance, whether it's a liquid, gas or solid. Generally speaking,
higher density materials have greater concentrations of electrons
and therefore greater capabilities to refract light. Light passing
through diamonds is reduced to about 77,000 miles per second--near
the maximum for any transparent substance.
Our standard conception of diamonds is as a colorless stone. But
color in diamonds exists in many variations, from dazzling pinks
and yellows to blues and violet. A chemically-pure, perfect crystal
of diamond is colorless, but add a little nitrogen and yellow appears.
Add boron instead and blue diamonds result. Colors from red to violet,
real white, and black are possible and can be complex to understand
scientifically. Colored diamonds are hot, both in the marketplace
and in science.
The glinting spectrum or "fire" from a colorless diamond--one
of its most prized attributes as a gemstone--results from its excellent
dispersion. Dispersion is the separation of white light into its
component rainbow colors. The greater the dispersion, the greater
the separation between the spectrum of colors that are refracted
from a gem.
An interesting property of some diamonds is that they can glow in
the dark. When illuminated by ultraviolet light, certain diamonds
can absorb the high-energy radiation and re-emit it as visible light.
These diamonds are called fluorescent. Some can even continue glowing
after the ultraviolet source is turned off. These diamonds are phosphorescent.
Diamonds are called "ice" with good reason. Objects feel
cold not only because they are at a lower temperature than our bodies,
but also because they can extract or conduct the heat away from
us. When you touch a diamond to your lips, it feels ice-cold because
it robs your lips of their heat. The capacity of diamonds to conduct
heat distinguishes them readily from other gems and exceeds that
of copper, an excellent thermal conductor, by about 4 times at room
temperature. This exceptional property of diamonds is increasingly
being used for extracting heat from electronic devices to make them
smaller and more powerful.