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Guest Column:Chemical Eye on a King Street Diamond

July 19, 2007|By Preston MacDougall

"Shine On You Crazy Diamond" was recorded in the '70s by the psychedelic rock band Pink Floyd as a tribute to Syd Barrett, their estranged founder, who was suffering from mental illness. The song became less metaphoric for others when General Electric's organic-based diamond synthesis technology was adapted for use in crematoria.

A Chicago company, LifeGem, claims to be able produce multiple high-quality diamonds — up to a full carat in size — from the carbon contained in the bodies of people or pets. Color is a final resting option as well, since impurities, such as boron and nitrogen, give color to diamonds, including the famous Hope diamond.

Note that if you are thinking of including this chemical transformation in your "last will and testament," prior cremation greatly reduces the sparkling yield since most of your carbon atoms will go up the smokestack as CO2 molecules.

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LifeGem's process apparently involves "carbonization" as the first step. I don't know the details, but I am pretty sure that it is irreversible — unlike Han Solo's temporary carbon freeze when the Empire struck back — so have your executor make sure you're dead first.

This process is similar to a common chemistry lab that demonstrates why carbohydrates are so-named. After mixing a few tablespoons of a carbohydrate, such as sugar, with concentrated sulfuric acid, not much seems to happen. After a while, however, things start to heat up, and steam can be seen rising from the mixture. The hot gas escaping was the "hydrate" part of the sugar, and what is left behind is the "carbo" part.

Concentrated sulfuric acid catalyzes this dehydration reaction, which only partly undoes the photosynthetic work of the beets or sugarcane. To get from the black mess of the most common form of elemental carbon, to the prized transparency of diamond also requires a catalyst, but you will need more than just a beaker to let it do its job.

During the '50s, GE used an iron-based catalyst to convert carbon in its abundant graphite form, into the first laboratory-made diamonds. To make the reaction "go," very high temperatures and a pressure 70,000 times normal atmospheric pressure had to applied. This necessitated the use of a powerful steel hydraulic press, and I presume similar equipment will be used if you and your relatives decide to start a collection of "family jewels."

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