New Strata-Gem Produces “Q-Carbon” – A Substance Stronger and Brighter than Diamonds

"Diamond", Image by Hisham Alqawsi

“Diamond”, Image by Hisham Alqawsi

There are eight Bruce Springsteen songs specifically containing the word “diamond” in their lyrics.¹ My favorite among them is from his song Better Days containing the line “Your heart like a diamond shone”. It is a highly evocative image from a deeply powerful song that has a special meaning of hope to many of his fans.

This line quickly sprang to mind when I read a fascinating new article posted on Smithsonian.com on December 2, 2015 entitled Weird New Type of Carbon Is Harder (and Brighter) Than Diamond by Maya Wei-Haas. This is a story about scientists at North Carolina State University² who have just announced the fabrication of Q-Carbon, a substance that is harder and brighter than diamonds as well as having magnetic and glowing properties. I will summarize and annotate it, and pose a few carbon-based questions of my own.

While “Q-carbon” surely sounds far less romantic and is not likely to appear in Bruce’s lyrics anytime soon  – – “Your heart like Q-carbon shone”? – – nah, I just don’t think so – – these four adjectives still seem fitting for both Bruce’s rock and this new material’s roll. For now, let’s focus on the latter in its new diamond setting.

It has taken the North Carolina State University team decades to develop and fabricate Q-carbon. Their invention can make diamonds quickly and at room temperature without using traditional methods of creating industrial diamonds by apply high pressure and high heat to carbon. Moreover, their work also led them to develop this additional “new phase of carbon” called Q-carbon. Their findings were published online on November 30, 2015 in the Journal of Applied Physics in a paper entitled Novel Phase of Carbon, Ferromagnetism, and Conversion into Diamond by Jagdish Narayan and Anagh Bhaumik.

According to Mr. Narayan, the key to this new method’s success is in its speed. At normal room temperature, the team applied “extremely short laser pulses” to amorphous carbon (which has no crystal structure). This heated the material to 6,740°F. When this “puddle” was very rapidly cooled, the Q-carbon then formed.

The scientists found it was harder than regular diamonds, exhibited ferroelectric (magnetic) properties, and was able to give off “small amounts of light”.  Among the anticipated applications for Q-carbon are in developing electronic displays, electronic components, and assisting in “understanding the magnetism of other planets”.

Its most current (no pun intended) use is in improving diamond fabrication. By varying the rates at which the carbon “puddles” are cooled, diamonds can be formed into specialized structure including “nanoneedles, microneedles³, nanodots and films”. Other fields such as medicine and abrasives4 may also benefit from this development.

This new methodology is also relatively inexpensive since its uses an existing  laser system otherwise used in eye surgery. It is likewise very fast as it can produce “a carat in about 15 minutes” according to Mr. Narayan. He is also optimistic that the diamonds can be scaled up from their current size of 70 microns by widening the side of the laser’s beam. (The Smithsonian.com article linked to above contains a photo of these new diamonds.)

The team is now working on further understanding and testing the properties of Q-carbon.

My questions are as follows:

  • What other industries and marketplaces might benefit from Q-carbon and/or the innovative methods used to produce it?
  • Are there other new molecular forms of carbon still to be found in addition to Q-carbon given that the last 30 years have brought us the discoveries and development of graphene. nanotubes and buckminsterfullerines?
  • Should Q-carbon be evaluated as a possible metamaterial because it appears to have some of the physical qualities of these substances as described in the April 10, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled The Next Wave in High Tech Materials Science ?

 


A sampling of additional press coverage on this story from the past week includes:


1.  See 10 Bruce Springsteen Songs That Reference Diamonds and Jewelry by Daniel Ford, posted on JCKonline.com on September 11, 2013.

2.  North Carolina State University scientists were also involved in the June 27, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Medical Researchers are Developing a “Smart Insulin Patch”.

3.  “Microneedles” were also first mentioned in the same post as Footnote 2 above.

4Does this include car alarms that only seem to go off at 4:00 am in the morning in my neighborhood?

Self-Healing Concrete Due to Soon Enter the Construction Market

"Second Avenue Subway: 96th Street", Image by MTA Photos

“Second Avenue Subway: 96th Street”, Image by MTA Photos

Please see the end of this post below for a related and most interesting December 7, 2016 update on a related new development on an experimental material called programmable cement.

While nearly all new technologies, products and services vigorously try to keep any bugs out, a modern improvement in an ancient technology that nearly everyone in the world still, well, heavily relies upon is based upon deliberately keeping all of its bugs in.

A microbiologist named Henk Jonkers at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, has created self-healing concrete involving bugs of a biological rather than electronic nature. The remarkable story of how he has accomplished this was reported in an article on Smithsonianmag.com entitled With This Self-Healing Concrete, Buildings Repair Themselves, by Emily Matchar, posted on June 5, 2015.

I will sum up, annotate and ask a few additional microbe-free questions.

Taking his inspiration from human biology, Jonkers has created this self-healing material by embedding concrete with limestone capsules. When the limestone is activated by “cracks, air or moisture”, it will then produce one of two forms of bacteria plus another compound called calcium lactate. In turn, these bugs will commence reacting with the calcium lactate to convert it to another chemical called calcite which then seals the cracks.

This advance could potentially solve an enduring problem when concrete is used in construction: Micro-cracks that develop later and, over time, may affect the structural integrity of a building. Moreover, further “leakage” like this in a structure can eventually result in a collapse. Jonker’s creation could put a halt this corrosive activity. The two strains of bacteria that emerge from the limestone can potentially remain “dormant for as long as 200 years”. *

Since 2011, Jonkers has been field testing his self-healing concrete on a lifeguard station which is subject to the corrosive forces at the beach. To date, it remains “watertight”.

The material will be brought to market in 2015 in the forms of “self-healing concrete, a repair mortar and a liquid repair medium”, costing between $33US to $44US per square meter. Because of this relatively high expense, it will only be used at first in structures where “leakage and corrosion” are potentially significant factors.  Nonetheless, Jonkers is working on less costly alternatives to his formulation. He also expects to scale up production of his new concrete by mid-2016.

Self-healing concrete mixtures have also been under development elsewhere at the following universities:

  • In the UK at the University of Bath, Cardiff University, also based upon bacteria (details described here)
  • In the US at MIT using “sunlight to activate polymer microcapsules” to fill in cracks (details described here), and
  • At the University of Michigan by embedding microfibers in conjunction with calcium carbonate (details described here)

Another potentially environmental benefit from self-healing concrete might be a reduction in the worldwide amount of energy used to produce concrete. Currently, it generates 5% of all of global carbon emissions and demand for concrete continues to rise as a result of growing urbanization. Thus, the increasing usage of self-healing concrete may lower the demand for the more carbon-emitting production of new concrete.

My questions are as follows:

  • Can added bacteria likewise bring self-healing capabilities to other building materials such as wood, glass, iron, marble and others?
  • In addition to self-healing, are there other beneficial properties that microbes can add to concrete as well as other construction materials?
  • Conversely, can microbes be similarly and safely somehow used in the demolition of buildings and the clearing of the resulting debris?
  • Are there any possible applications of metamaterials, as covered in the April 10, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled The Next Wave in High Tech Materials Science, to concrete formulations?

There is a common expression among software programmers and developers to try to explain instances when end-users find flaws in their work. They will often, half-jokingly, say “It’s not a bug it’s a feature“. In the case of self-healing concrete, it turns out to be both.


*  For a fascinating journey through the several-millennia history of concrete, I very highly recommend Planet Concrete (Prometheus Books, 2011), by Robert Courland. The author has skillfully enlivened and fully engaged his readers in what might otherwise sound like a somewhat dull topic for a book.



December 27, 2016 Update:

A story was posted on Phys.org today entitled Scientists Develop ‘Programmable’ Cement Particles to Attain Enhanced Properties. (No author is credited.) Scientists at Rice University have created a new form of “programmable” cement that, at the microscopic level, forms new shapes that make the resulting hardened product more durable while less porous. In turn, this may result in “stronger  structures that require less concrete”. I highly recommend clicking through for a full read of this fascinating news.

Smart Dust: Specialized Computers Fabricated to Be Smaller Than a Single Grain of Rice

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“Sabotage #4: Mixing Noodles with Rice”, Image by Stefan

Back in 1977, Steve Martin put out a live album of his stand-up comedy performances called Let’s Get Small. Included was one of his signature routines called Well, Excuse Me. It went on to sell more than a millions copies. Much of it was laugh-out-loud hilarious.

Now, 48 years later, when the Internet of Things (IoT) has becoming a burgeoning global phenomenon, some very imaginative people have taken this notion (in name only), and  in a way that could have never been foreseen in any manner back then.

Certainly no excuses needed here. Rather, let’s have a look at this exciting new development.

Researchers at the University of Michigan, led by Professor David Blaauw, have recently fabricated a functional and autonomous computer measuring only 1 millimeter on each side. This device, dubbed the Michigan Micro Mote (M^3), was the subject of a most interesting article by Rex Sakamoto on CNET.com entitled This Working Computer is Smaller Than a Grain of Rice, posted on April 6, 2015. I will summarize it, add some links and annotations, and pose a few questions. (The CNET article also contains an embedded video of a very informative recent report about this project on CBS News.)

This team’s work has been ongoing for more than ten years. With regards to the IoT, they believe that all of devices connected to it will require more “intelligence” and networking capabilities integrated into them whereby the M^3 could be the means to accomplish this.

The M^3’s current capabilities are photography and as temperature and pressure sensors. The researchers are now exploring a range of potential applications “ranging from medical to industrial” including:

  • Medical: How it can be “injected into the body” to take such temperature and pressure readings, as well as an electrocardiogram (EKG).
  • Energy: Assessing whether an existing oil well still contains any extractable reserves.
  • Consumer Goods: Attaching M^3s to everyday items such as keys and wallets to insure they are never lost inside or outside of the home.
  • Other potential apps on the project’s website include a platform containing “low-resolution imager, signal processing and memory, temperature sensor, on-board CMOS timer, wireless communication, battery, and solar energy harvesting that are all packaged in a 1mm3 volume through low-cost die stacking and encapsulation.”

In order to program and power up the M^3, the researchers created a means to accomplish this by using “strobing light at high frequency”. In turn, the M^3’s output is transmitted to an external computer by “conventional radio frequencies”.

The team’s current efforts involve reducing the size of the M^3 even further to a point where it may become the basis for a form of “smart dust“.

Just a few days ago in the April 10, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled The Next Wave in High Tech Material Science about metamaterials that can bend sound, light, radar and seismic waves, I speculated about some other potential applications for this emerging technology. With the M^3 so similar insofar as its originality and  potential to generate a myriad of applications not even considered yet,  my questions include:

  • Are there apps where the M^3 and metamaterials can be combined? What about in optical networks where metamaterials are using in the production of fiber cables where the M^3s could be used as sensors?
  • Would the M^3 make a via sensor for transportation infrastructure (roads, bridges, rails and so on), as well as the bodies, engines and electronics in cars, planes and trains? How about embedding them into buildings for additional safety technologies?
  • What safety and privacy protocols and policies will need to be developed and by whom? How can they be enforced?

The Next Wave in High Tech Materials Science

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Optical Profilometer Metamaterials, Image by Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Metamaterials are not something used by the United Federation of Planets’ engineers to build the next iteration of the Starship Enterprise (which, btw, would be designated the NCC-1701-F, although some may differ).  Rather, they are materials fabricated in such a manner that they can bend light, sound, radar, radio and seismic waves. The technological implication of applying these materials in antennas, radar, cosmetics and soundproofing may prove to be transformative according to a fascinating article in the March 23, 2015 edition of The New York Times entitled The Waves of the Future May Bend Around Metamaterials, by John Markoff.  I will summarize this, add some links and annotations, and pose some questions.

These substances achieve their remarkable effect by being composed of microscopic “subcomponents” that are smaller than the wavelengths of the types of waves they are engineered to bend in certain ways. That is, they can be used to “manipulate” the waves in designated manners “that do not normally occur”.

Researchers have been developing a variety of metamaterials for the past 15 years. Their work has recently begun yielding some genuine innovations in systems that incorporate these advances in original and innovative ways. Some of these latest developments include:

  • Airbus*and Lamda Guard are about to test a coating on airline windows to deter attempts to blind them with laser pointing devices by someone on the ground. (See NYC Man Charged With Pointing Laser at Aircraft, in the March 15, 2015 edition of The New York Times for a recent case of this here in New York.)
  • Echodyne is working on several types of antennas, radar-based navigation systems and other devices.
  • Evolv Technology is developing airport security systems.
  • Kymeta has partnered with Intelsat to engineer “land-based and satellite-based intelligent antennas”.
  • Dr. Xiang Zhang at the University of California at Berkeley, is working on, among other metamaterials projects, “superlenses” for microscopes that might increase their magnification powers beyond today’s capabilities. He has received inquiries from “military contractors and commercial companies” and even cosmetics companies concerning metamaterials. As well, he and other developers are creating apps for optical computer networks.
  • Professor Vinod Menon and his research team at the City College of New York, in their Laboratory for Nano and Micro Photonics, have demo-ed “light emission from ultrafast-switching LEDs” made from metamaterials. Using this and other related developments may also lead to significantly faster optical computers networks.
  • Menard Construction published a paper in 2013 entitled Seismic Metamaterial: How to Shake Friends and Influence Waves? by S. Brûlé, E.H. Javelaud, S. Enoch and S. Guenneau, where the company successfully tested “a metamaterial grid of empty cylindrical columns bored into soil” in an effort to reduce the effects of a “simulated earthquake”. (The phases in quotes in the last sentence were from the NYTimes article, not the research paper itself.)

The article concludes on a note of great optimism from Professor Zhang about the future of metamaterials. I completely agree. Once these apps and development projects make their way into commercial markets and other scientists and companies from different fields and industries take greater notice, I strongly believe that new forms of metamaterials and their applications will emerge that have not even been imagined yet. Like any dramatically new technology, this will find its applications perhaps in some very unlikely and surprising sectors.

Just to start off, what about medical devices, optical computing and storage devices, visual displays, sound and video recording, and automotive safety technology? Let’s keep watching and see what springs from people’s needs and creativity.

Finally, just a quick mention of a recently published book that received many excellent reviews for a lively and engaging series of stories about the key developments of basic materials and materials science through history entitled Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World by Mark Midownik (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014).

[While I hope that this blog post will be enlightening, please be assured that no light waves were bent or harmed during the drafting process.]

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Another innovative project by Airbus to develop a drone for bringing Net access to remote and under-served regions was covered in the November 26, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Robots and Diamonds and Drones, Aha! Innovations on the Horizon for 2015.