Weird Wednesdays: Diamonds on fire

The “Weird Wednesday” column is brought to you by a staff writer who is obsessed with factoids, history bits and freaky information to get you over the weekday hump

A collection of 0.02, 0.03 and 0.04 carat solitaire diamonds weighing in total 5.36 carats, costing just under $4,000. (Swamibu/Wikimedia Creative Commons)
 

With Valentine’s Day rapidly approaching, so arrive\ the sickly-sweet advertisements for all the commercialized accoutrements that a commonly celebrated holiday attracts. They implore you to buy things that profess your affection: sweets, stuffed animals, roses and, of course, jewelry.

Who needs all that stuff? If you’re like me, I express my affection through bad jokes and food. While I appreciate a box of chocolates, the last thing I want to do is go to a crowded restaurant or to be given a shiny worthless rock that’ll eventually evaporate.

Don’t know what I’m talking about? Surprise, surprise! Diamonds, under the right conditions, can burn up like any old lump of coal.

While I won’t go into the entire monopoly that controls the price of diamonds worldwide and imposes an artificial scarcity of them (that’s for another Weird Wednesday), I WILL go into the science behind the glittering gem that so many covet.

Diamonds are made of carbon, which is arguably the most magical element on the periodic table. It forms the same stuff in polyester sweaters, coal, oil and the very proteins in an organic structure like you.

Carbon has four electrons in its outer shell, known as valence electrons. The element is like one of those multiplugs, and can serve as the base atom for many other elements to bond on. It can bond to hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and even other carbons to make a chain.

Diamonds are made of pure carbon in a crystalline structure. While it’s a myth that diamonds are formed from coal, they do have a similar structure to another familiar material-- graphite, the same stuff found within pencils.

The way that diamond is built, however, makes it far stronger than any mechanical pencil refill you’ll ever find. The bonds between the carbons are very strong, making diamond one of the strongest substances in the world-- enough to use in drills and engraving tools.

However, it does have its weak spots. Hitting a diamond in the right place and at the right angle can either split it cleanly or shatter it. This is why you can get a pretty tiny shiny rock from a big lump of cloudy crystal that is raw diamond.

Back to diamond formation. Millions of years ago when the earth was still a rock floating in space, before plant life was established and when your history professor was but a wee child, carbon was chilling about 90 miles beneath the Earth’s crust. And when I say chilling, I mean being subjected to temperatures of up to 2000 degrees Fahrenheit and to the kind of pressures felt by a graduate student with a thesis defense due in less than 12 hours.

All this pressure forces the carbon, which at that point is generally lying around in either loose chains or molecules, to band together and form the crystalline structure of an uncut diamond.  

How do diamonds get to the surface, pray tell? Volcanoes, of course. Cracks reaching down the mantle and massive eruptions bring the shiny rocks to the surface, which is why many diamond mines are located near former sites of volcanic activity.

Now, while diamonds aren’t made from coal, they have similar properties to it, what with it being made purely from carbon and all. While they aren’t black and sooty they can, in fact, burn.

How? Just heat a diamond up enough under a blowtorch and dump it in a canister of pure oxygen. The reaction between pure carbon (C) and the oxygen (O2) creates carbon dioxide (CO2), the same reaction that wood goes through when you toss it in a bonfire.

After about 10 minutes, your $1,000 visit to the jewelry store is up in smoke. It’s enough to make any socialite weep.

Even when you don’t go around deliberately setting diamonds on fire, the sun already has a head start: UV light has the same evaporative effect on diamonds. If you stick an engagement ring under a super strong UV laser, it won’t last long. Don’t worry about letting the sunshine hit your heirloom necklace, though. The UV light that makes it to earth is too weak to do anything noticeable to diamonds, at least within your lifetime.

So if you have something special in mind for your sweetheart this Valentine’s day, try getting them something that won’t catch on fire too easily-- might I suggest a Nokia?


Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing