In the mid-2000s, diamonds have been the sizzling new issue in physics. It was not because of their sizing, colour, or sparkle, however. These diamonds have been hideous: Scientists would reduce them into flat squares, millimeters across, till they resembled slender shards of glass. Then they would shoot lasers by them.

Almost certainly the most important bauble of all was a minuscule diamond mined from the Ural Mountains. “We referred to as it the ‘magic Russian sample,’” suggests physicist Kai-Mei Fu of the University of Washington. The diamond was extremely pure—almost all carbon, which is not typical in this messy world—but with a handful of impurities that gave it weird quantum mechanical houses. “It experienced been chopped up amid tutorial teams,” suggests Fu, who worked with a piece. “You know, take a chisel, chip some off. You never want a great deal.” These houses have been promising—but the physicists only experienced a handful of diamonds to examine, so they couldn’t run far too several experiments.

That’s not a problem any much more. These times, Fu can just go on line and acquire a $five hundred quantum-quality diamond for an experiment—from the corporation Element 6, owned by De Beers. They’ve extended developed synthetic diamonds for drilling and machining, but in 2007, with funding from the European Union, they began creating precisely the variety physicists want. And not just physicists, any much more: Today, the provide of synthetic quantum diamonds is so abundant that heaps of fields are discovering their doable uses.

The initially discipline to reward was quantum computing. Quantum computers—which theoretically should really compute specified jobs exponentially more quickly than standard computers—encode information in quantum mechanical houses these kinds of as spin or polarization. These houses can be very unstable. But if you encode information inside a diamond by manipulating its impurities with a laser, the gem’s crystal composition truly safeguards and preserves that information. Physicists are doing work to make adjacent impurities interact in a managed way to execute a primitive algorithm.

Element 6 grows these perfectly imperfect diamonds in furnaces at nearly 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Starting off with a seed diamond, the company’s engineers pump gases—something carbon-made up of, like methane, together with hydrogen and nitrogen—into the furnace. As the fuel molecules warmth up, they independent into single atoms, some of which land on the seed diamond. A handful of preference nitrogen atoms sneak in, and the hydrogen retains the carbon layer escalating in the appropriate crystal composition. “Carbon does not really want to be diamond,” suggests Matthew Markham, a scientist at Element 6. “It really prefers to be graphite.”

At Harvard University, physics grad scholar Jenny Schloss programs Element 6 diamonds with lasers and measures how close by magnetic fields interfere. But prior to she can do that, she has to mess the diamonds up even much more.

The diamonds Element 6 sells have nitrogen impurities—but what Schloss’s group wants is a gap appropriate next to it, referred to as a nitrogen vacancy. (Disclosure: Schloss is a buddy from higher education.) So they ship their diamonds to a small New Jersey corporation referred to as Prism Gem. Most of its business goes to jewelry companies, who question them to develop colored diamonds by knocking carbon atoms out with beams of higher-power electrons. But physicists can use the same method to develop much more beneficial holes in their investigate diamonds.

Prism Gem will shoot electrons at the diamonds for hours—sometimes days—to develop the appropriate variety of holes. “Typically, researchers know what complex technical specs they’re wanting for. They’ll ship us information on how several electrons they want for every centimeter,” suggests Ashit Gandhi, Prism Gem’s chief technologies officer. “Jewelry is much more subjective. They’ll question for gentle environmentally friendly, dark environmentally friendly, pink, or what ever.” Soon after sitting beneath the electron beam, Schloss’s diamond, at first tinted yellow from nitrogen impurities, turns pale blue.

Her group then bakes the diamond all over again, which leads to the holes to migrate next to the nitrogen impurities to develop the coveted nitrogen vacancy centre. Its final colour ranges from crystal clear to pink to red, depending on how several impurities they want.

With the quantum diamond provide chain in location, physicists have been able to examine and fiddle with the gems in several iterations of experiments. But it is been a slow method turning the diamond impurities into connected bits that can compute. “The verdict is however out,” suggests Fu. “Only two quantum bits [in diamond] have ever been connected. Until eventually points come to be much more scalable, I never feel anyone can say it is a definite issue.”

But by knowledge the diamonds in much more depth, researchers have inadvertently occur up with an additional doable use for them. Harvard physicists Mikhail Lukin and Ronald Walsworth—Schloss’s investigate advisor—knew that when strike with a laser, a nitrogen vacancy diamond would emit different amounts of gentle if it was near a magnet. The diamond could operate as a form of magnetic sensor—one that was not as cumbersome as recent sensors, which also want to be cooled to temperatures near absolute zero.

So in the early 2010s, Lukin and Walsworth’s investigate staff began using the diamonds to examine nerve cells, which emit magnetic fields when stimulated. They began with a squid nerve cell, thicker than a human hair. Grad scholar Matthew Turner traveled to Woods Hole Marine Organic Laboratory, where by he excised extended, slender white neurons from fresh squid, put them on ice, and jumped on a bus back again to the lab to measure its magnetic discipline beneath electric stimulation.

Later, the staff switched to finding out neurons in marine worms, which they could preserve in a tank in the lab. About a yr in the past, they released a paper on the sensitivity of their diamonds to examine all those neurons. Now, they’re using the diamonds to examine magnetic fields supplied off by human heart cells.

They are also collaborating directly with Element 6. In return for grant money, the corporation sends them diamonds. A short while ago, the corporation despatched them a spherical disk the sizing of a cookie, with four diamonds embedded in it—intended to reduce 1 diamond from heating up far too a great deal when strike by a potent laser. “I’m not confident why there are four diamonds,” suggests Schloss. “We have not found a great use for it.”

Element 6 is the most important supplier of quantum-quality diamonds. “Right now, if it is not a monopoly, it is a near monopoly, in particular in conditions of entry,” suggests Fu. Schloss and Turner’s lab has bought poorer good quality diamonds from eBay for preliminary experiments, but they have not worked effectively.

In the meantime, physicists are doing work not just on their experiments, but on driving this new technologies forward. The Harvard lab has now spun off a small corporation, Quantum Diamond Technologies, to acquire diamond-centered imaging devices for health-related diagnostics.

Finally, they’re hoping the diamonds could be beneficial for imaging inside the human mind, neuron by neuron, a thing that neuroscientists have however been unable to do. Or perhaps, used in conjunction with other technologies, it’ll illuminate a new corner of the neuroscience puzzle. “I never assert to be the most effective neuroscientist or to have the most effective instrument,” suggests Turner. “This is just a different instrument that I want to recognize much better.” They never know what is next, but perhaps that makes for much better science.

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