Filed Under:

Physicists Crush Diamonds With Giant Laser

Play associated audio

Physicists have used the world's most powerful laser to zap diamonds. The results, they say, could tell us more about the cores of giant planets.

"Diamonds have very special properties, besides being very expensive and used for jewelrey etc.," says Raymond Smith, a researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. "It's the hardest substance known to man."

And diamonds aren't just here on Earth. Diamonds are made of carbon, and carbon is one of the most abundant elements in the universe. Scientists now believe that diamonds might be relatively common, especially at the cores of giant planets.

That goes for the eighth planet in our solar system, Neptune. "There's studies suggesting that Neptune has a diamond core," he says.

At least that's the theory. But the pressure at Neptune's center is enormous. Researchers weren't sure what that would do to a diamond.

"Before these experiments scientists just did not have the capabilities at hand to generate these high pressures," he says.

Livermore Lab has the world's most powerful laser, the National Ignition Facility. Smith and colleagues used its 176 beams to squeeze a tiny diamond target. The team got up to 50 million atmospheres of pressure, that's about 10 times the density of the Earth's core.

The diamond at the center of the capsule was at the density of lead before it was vaporized by the laser energy. The results, published in Nature, prove that diamond can withstand this kind of crushing. More studies are being planned to see how its behavior might change.

So what expensive thing can Smith target next? Maybe caviar?

"We could compress caviar to very high pressure," he says. "But probably the practical and planetary applications would be limited."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit

WAMU 88.5

Baltimore Artist Joyce J. Scott Pushes Local, Global Boundaries

The MacArthur Foundation named 67-year-old Baltimore artist Joyce J. Scott a 2016 Fellow -– an honor that comes with a $625,000 "genius grant" and international recognition.


A History Of Election Cake And Why Bakers Want To #MakeAmericaCakeAgain

Bakers Susannah Gebhart and Maia Surdam are reviving election cake: a boozy, dense fruitcake that was a way for women to participate in the democratic process before they had the right to vote.
WAMU 88.5

The State Of The Race

Early voting is underway in states across the country. Just over two weeks before the presidential election, a look at the latest polls, the electoral map and end-of-the-line strategies for both campaigns.

WAMU 88.5

Twilight Warriors: The Soldiers, Spies And Special Agents Who Are Revolutionizing The American Way Of War

After the 9/11 attacks, U.S. intelligence, military and law enforcement agencies were forced to work together in completely new ways. A veteran national security reporter on how America has tried to adapt to a new era of warfare.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.