Scientists Turned Plastic Into Diamonds And Hot Ice With Lasers

Inspired by “nanodiamonds” found on ice giants like Uranus and Neptune, this new research could help significantly reduce plastic pollution and transform plastic in the ocean.

Nanodiamonds up close

Science Photo Library/Getty ImagesA computer rendering of nanodiamonds. They are smaller than a micron and have great potential for medicine, electronics and other industries.

Scientists at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf in Germany recently blasted cheap plastic with ultra-powerful lasers, creating incredibly small “nanodiamonds” and confirming the existence of a new, exotic type of water.

Using a powerful optical laser, the physicists blasted a sheet of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic — the kind used in water and soda bottles — and heated the plastic to about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit for an incredibly short time, only a billionth of that Second, live science reported

The result was that this extreme heat created pressures millions of times greater than Earth’s atmosphere, ultra-compressing the plastic and effectively unmixing its molecular structure. Carbon atoms within the plastic began to crystallize, leaving room for hydrogen and oxygen to drift out through the resulting lattice.

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The crystallized carbon turned into nanodiamonds billionths of a meter in size, while hydrogen and oxygen became “superionic water” or “superionic ice”. Quanta Magazine indicated is a black, incredibly hot ice that may actually be the most common form of water in the universe.

Corresponding New scientistSuperionic water also conducts electricity more easily than normal water.

So what does all this mean?

In practical applications, nanodiamonds can be used to convert carbon dioxide into other gases and to deliver drugs into the human body, explained the research study’s co-author, physicist Dominik Kraus.

And according to Kraus, nanodiamonds could possibly also be used in the future as “ultra-small and very precise quantum sensors for temperature and magnetic fields, which could lead to a multitude of applications”.


Hiroaki Ohfuji et al./Wikimedia CommonsNanodiamonds from the Popigai crater in Siberia.

But perhaps most relevant to the average person is the fact that this technique could help reduce plastic pollution by providing a financial incentive to remove plastic from the sea and turn it into nanodiamonds.

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Another researcher on the project, Siegfried Glenzer of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California, explained that scientists had previously been able to create nanodiamonds in laboratory settings, but “the conditions were so extreme and dynamic that the diamonds eventually fell apart.”

This new test produced the diamonds at a much lower pressure and, Glenzer says, could actually offer physicists the opportunity to harvest the diamonds.

The experiment also gave physicists a deeper understanding of the nature of planetary ice giants like Neptune and Uranus, whose strange conditions have often baffled researchers.

Despite being an ice giant, Neptune has always been unexpectedly hot, and Uranus’ magnetic field takes on a strange shape.

Like PET plastic, the interiors of ice giants contain oxygen, carbon and hydrogen, but their internal pressure has never been thought to be strong enough to lead to the formation of nanodiamonds.

However, this new experiment proves that nanodiamonds could very likely form in the cores of ice giants, where the heat would produce a reaction similar to what the lasers do to PET plastic, causing a “rainfall of diamonds” to travel through the planet’s interior .

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“That means,” Glenzer said, “that diamonds are probably everywhere. If it’s happening at lower pressure than what we’ve seen so far, that means they’re in Uranus, in Neptune, in some moons like Titan.”

Illustration of Neptune

Tobias Roetsch/Future Publishing via Getty ImagesSectional view of Neptune detailing the core and mantle.

Diamonds migrating through Neptune’s interior could create friction that would explain the planet’s high temperatures, and the formation of superionic water on Uranus could conduct currents that give its magnetic field its odd shape.

While these theories have yet to be proven, the new study provides good evidence that nanodiamonds and superionic water do indeed form naturally on Neptune and Uranus.

It’s possible, Kraus said, that this theory can be confirmed within the next 10 years or so, when he expects a NASA spacecraft to be launched to Uranus.

In any case, the ability to turn cheap plastic into useful materials like nanodiamonds and superionic water could have dozens of practical applications here on Earth, and that’s something to be very excited about.

After reading about this new discovery, read about the lake of water that scientists discovered on Mars. Then look at the photo of a supermassive black hole destroying a star.

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