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