Researchers at North Carolina State University just discovered a new form of carbon that is harder than diamonds. The material is called Q-carbon, and it has some exciting new applications. Unlike synthetic diamonds, it doesn’t need to be subjected to extreme pressures or heat in order to be produced. Instead, Q-carbon can be produced in a lab using only a laser of about the same strength as one used for eye surgery.
Q-carbon isn’t found outside of the lab — in fact, researchers believe the only place it may naturally occur is in the core of some planets. Unlike other forms of carbon, it’s ferromagnetic and glows when exposed to low levels of energy. Jay Narayan, the lead author of the study, said in a press release that “Q-carbon’s strength and low work-function – its willingness to release electrons – make it very promising for developing new electronic display technologies.”
To produce the material, researchers start with a sapphire, glass, or plastic surface, and coat it with amorphous carbon. Then, they blast the surface with a single laser pulse for about 200 nanoseconds, which raises the carbon to a temperature of 3,727 degrees Celsius. This creates a thin film of Q-carbon which can be between 20 and 500 nanometers thick. Additional laser pulses can change how quickly the carbon cools and form diamond at normal atmospheric pressures.
Right now, scientists aren’t completely sure what to do with the new material. In fact, given its unique properties, they aren’t even completely sure how to work with it. But with time, Q-carbon could be very promising for both consumer and industrial applications.