BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

24 September 2014
Science & Nature: TV & Radio Follow-upScience & Nature
Science & Nature: TV and Radio Follow-up

BBC Homepage

In TV & Radio

Contact Us

You are here: BBC > Science & Nature > TV & Radio Follow-up > Horizon

The Diamond Makers
BBC2 9:30pm Thursday 27th January 2000

Baltzar von PlatenBack in the 1950s the scientists from General Electric were not the only ones trying to make diamonds. Unknown to them, in a magnificent old hunting palace on the outskirts of Stockholm, the Swedish electrical company ASEA had already been funding an eccentric independent scientist called Baltzar von Platen to look into making diamonds.

In 1949 they hired a team of five scientists and engineers, headed by Erik Lunblad. The top secret project was called Quintus and Von Platen's lab became known as the Quintuslaboratorium. Von Platen was an extraordinary man who had invented the fridge. That is why ASEA took him seriously. His dream was nothing less than to invent a machine that could make Koh-i-Noor diamonds.

diamond pressLike General Electric, Von Platen's team knew that high pressure and high temperature was needed to break graphite's atomic bonds. And like General Electric they had a difficult time making a machine strong enough to create those conditions. Their diamond press had a completely different design. It had six pyramid-shaped anvils, which when pressed together formed a sphere around a sample of graphite. The whole structure was encased in a strong copper jacket and suspended in an alchohol-filled tank at 6000 atmospheres of pressure. But it was highly dangerous.

If a leak appeared, it would create a high-velocity alcohol jet capable of drilling right through a hand. The whole device was capable of producing over 50,000 atmospheres and the graphite sample was surrounded by thermite which, although it could raise the temperature by 2000°C, was unstable and, combined with the alcohol, potentially explosive.

Von Platen made sure that the most valuable members of the team left the room when the press was operating. The problem for the Swedish team was that their machine was so complicated that every time they put the apparatus under pressure and something broke, it took a whole day to unravel and rebuild it. Eventually they too realised that by adding iron carbide to the graphite sample it lowered graphite's melting point and that as more and more graphite was dissolved in the metal, it became saturated. They were sure that they had cracked the theory of making diamonds.

On February 16th 1953, nearly a year before General Electric, Erik Lundblad ran the high pressure press at 83,000 atmospheres and about 2000°C for a full hour. On unwrapping the carbon parcel, he was astonished - he found diamond crystals, no bigger than grains of sand. Unfortunately for Von Platen, ASEA decided to keep the experiment a secret in case a competitor stole their secret, and the experiment was not duplicated or published - a condition of recognition for scientific inventions - until after General Electric's announcement.

As a result the world has never officially recognised that it was Von Platen's team who in fact had made the first synthetic diamond.

Back to the The Diamond Makers programme page.


Back to homepage