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Scientists have found a way to turn plastic into diamonds

By recreating the extreme conditions of exoplanets, a team of researchers have successfully managed to produce nanodiamonds from PET plastic.

As the climate disaster worsens, our need for technological solutions becomes more urgent.

Over the last decade, research into climate innovation has produced a mixed bag of results despite the mounting pressure. Some ideas have gained traction and are genuinely viable, while others have proven to be mostly implausible and economically impossible.

However, as our understanding of climate change improves, we are able to observe and discover new ways to curb emissions and – in some cases – even reverse the environmental damage we’ve already caused.

One such example is in Germany, where researchers have found a way to turn PET plastics from water bottles, food packaging, and other containers into nanodiamonds by recreating the extreme conditions of exoplanets. Fancy stuff.

It’s a significant breakthrough that tackles two problems at once. Not only could this transform the way we dispose of plastic waste, but it could also help address ethical concerns surrounding the practice of mining raw materials.

Scientists make nanodiamonds out of plastic bottles | BBC Science Focus Magazine

All that’s well and good, of course, but how exactly was this achieved?

In 2017, the research team set out to replicate specific weather conditions already observed on Neptune and Uranus using polystyrene. Both planets endure intense pressure and high temperatures beneath their surfaces, causing their atmospheres to produce diamonds. Yes, it rains diamonds.

Five years on, scientists have successfully produced diamond from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which could become the blueprint for future plastic disposal systems around the world.

According to the study – which was published last week in Science Advances – they did so by bombarding the material with the Linac Coherent Light Source, a high-powered X-ray laser at the SLAC National Acceleratory Laboratory in California.

PET has a good balance of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, making it a closer chemical proxy to the exoplanets than polystyrene. This means that the process of rapidly heating it to 6,000 degrees Celsius and generating a shock wave yields a significant amount of diamond.

On Neptune, It's Raining Diamonds | American Scientist

‘We found that the presence of oxygen enhances diamond formation instead of preventing it, making ‘diamond rain’ inside those planets a more likely scenario,’ says the paper’s author, Dominik Kraus.

‘We also see that diamonds grow larger for higher pressures and with progressing time in the experiments.’

As Kraus explains, if this intriguing experiment is scaled up, it has the potential to be a sure-fire means of recycling large quantities of PET and could ultimately close the carbon loop by reducing levels of global warming.

A new, sustainable recycling option that both opens the floor to improved knowledge about outer space and heals our Earth in the meantime?

Sounds like a win-win to me.


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