Diamonds, move over: Scientists make harder, brighter Q-carbon

A Sotheby's employee holds huge white oval diamond that was auctioned in 2013. Scientists have created a substance that can now outmatch a diamond in hardness and brilliance.

Story highlights

  • Q-carbon glows brighter in low light and is harder than diamonds
  • It is made by a laser pulse lasting 200 billionths of a second

(CNN)Scientists have created a substance that blings even brighter than diamonds, but chances are you won't wear it. You'll take its byproducts as medicine instead.

It's called Q-carbon, and researchers at North Carolina State University have made it by zapping a kind of loose carbon with a laser beam that lasts a fraction of a fraction of a blink of an eye -- 200 nanoseconds.
That's only 200 billionths of a second, but it's enough to heat the carbon to about 3,700 degrees Celsius. That's not far from double the heat many scientist say it took to make natural diamonds when they were formed a billion or more years ago.
    Then the researchers let that carbon cool immediately, snapping its atoms into a special crystalline structure.
    The result is a new substance that may have never existed on Earth before and has some unique properties.
    The researchers published their results in the Journal of Applied Physics.

    About that carbon

    Carbon gets a lot of bad rap these days as a culprit of global warming. But that's mostly carbon dioxide -- carbon joined in a molecule with oxygen.
    In its pure form, carbon is something very different altogether. It only exists in a few solid forms, which contrast sharply from one another because of how they are put together.
    Got a pencil? Look at the "lead." It's not lead; it's graphite, which is a solid form of pure carbon, a very common one.
    When you're writing, you can see how soft it is as it comes off onto the paper with ease.
    Then there's the rare stuff, the bling -- diamonds. Same carbon, very different crystalline structure. It's a lot tighter and smaller, which makes it the hardest naturally occurring substance on Earth, according to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
    Graphite is also gray and smudgy, and diamonds have pretty unbeatable clarity and bling.
    Q-carbon has an even stronger brilliance, glowing even in the lowest light, the researchers said. But it's not diamond, and it's not graphite.
    Electron microscope shows microdiamonds made with new technique related to Q-carbon.

    A brand new thing

    It's its own thing, which means that scientists have created a new form of solid carbon that probably otherwise does not exist on Earth.
    "We've now created a third solid phase of carbon," said N.C. State researcher Jay Narayan and lead author of three papers on the innovation. "The only place it may be found in the natural world would be possibly in the core of some planets."
    And it has some properties that make it different from diamonds. It's even harder. But the clincher -- it's ferromagnetic. That means it can be magnetized.
    It could become a very useful material, researchers say.
    Its intense glow could make electronic displays brighter and clearer.

    Take your diamonds

    Engineers can also vary the laser blast to create diamond structures in the Q-carbon, and that's where the medical possibilities come in.
    "We can create diamond nanoneedles or microneedles, nanodots or large-area diamond films, with applications for drug delivery," Narayan said. And they could be made cheaply.
    Nanodiamonds are on the cutting edge of cancer drug research. They are nontoxic, says Drexel University, which is researching their use to deliver anti-cancer drugs into brain tumors.
    Nanodiamonds are nothing new, so why use this new stuff to make them instead of using it directly instead?
    The scientists say that Q-carbon is so new that they still need to study its properties to get to know them better.