Diamonds are a controversial stone. They’re beautiful, and, for many people, a status symbol, but the diamond industry is tainted by the issue of conflict diamonds, or blood diamonds, which are diamonds mined in war-torn zones and sold to finance armed combat. Progress has been made in reducing the conflict diamond trade, but it’s still an issue that means shopping for a diamond requires some extra research to avoid inadvertently funding civil war.
Other than the humanitarian issues, the problem with diamonds is that they’re really, really expensive. A little diamond chip will set you back a few thousand dollars, at least – hence the status symbol. But what if you could make your own diamonds, in any shape or size, from the comfort of your own home – no mining or shopping required?
Lockheed Martin, aerospace and defense corporation and big name in metal 3D printing, has filed a patent application for a 3D printer that prints diamonds. Yes, they’re synthetic diamonds, but diamonds all the same. Diamonds are formed when the extreme heat and pressure in the earth’s core cause carbon atoms to bond together and form super-hard crystals. Lockheed Martin’s diamond printer uses poly(hydridocarbyne), a carbon-based pre-ceramic polymer with structural similarities to diamonds.
That polymer is deposited in layers, alternating with layers of a ceramic powder, by the printer in a predetermined shape. The deposited shape is then heated to temperatures over 100 degrees in an inert atmosphere to cause pyrolysis, a physical and chemical change that happens when an organic material is heated without the presence of oxygen. In this case, the heat causes the poly(hydridocarbyne) to crystallize into a diamond. Any excess ceramic powder is then removed.
That’s one proposal. The patent application also discusses the use of other pre-ceramic polymers; another proposal involves the use of nanodiamond powder.
As it’s still just a patent application, there’s no telling when – or if – Lockheed Martin’s 3D diamond printer will become a reality. Lockheed’s intention is to be able to 3D print diamond drill heads with complex geometries, as well as super-strong, lightweight saws, knives and armor, but in theory, such a printer could be used to print diamond jewelry. The proposed printer can print diamonds in any shape, which could result in a whole new market of intricate, complex diamond jewelry or other items. I expect that the cost of a diamond printer will be pretty astronomical, at least at first – but if jewelers invest in them, it’ll be interesting to see how the cost of a 3D printed diamond ring might compare to a traditional one.
One can only speculate how 3D printed diamond jewelry might catch on. It’s unlikely that people will actually be printing diamonds from the comfort of their own homes, at least not anytime soon, but as with other forms of 3D printed jewelry, most of the appeal lies in the possibility for customization. You’re going to have a tough time finding a jeweler willing or able to chisel a diamond into the shape of your fiancée’s favorite flower, but with a 3D printer, there’s a lot more potential for unique custom designs. Don’t get ready for commercials proclaiming “He went to Lockheed!” just yet – but 3D printing is already changing the jewelry industry, so diamonds may be no exception. If you’d like to read the full patent application, you can do so here. Discuss further in the Lockheed Diamond 3D Printer forum over at 3DPB.com.