Is There a Material Harder Than Diamond?

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When most people think of the hardest material on Earth, they probably picture a diamond. After all, these pretty gemstones are tough enough to cut through steel and rock. And while a standard diamond is a pretty good choice, scientists are hard at work trying to make something even harder.

One such project is a special form of carbon known as lonsdaleite. This rare mineral, which occurs naturally only in the centers of meteorite impact craters, has carbon atoms arranged in flexing hexagonal lattices that make it up to 58 percent harder than a regular diamond.

A team of researchers at the Australian National University is working to reproduce this material synthetically so that it can be used in high-performance applications. In particular, they’re hoping to use the tough crystals in cutting tools and for making corrosion-resistant coatings for spacecraft.

Whether or not it can actually beat the diamond remains to be seen, but it’s a promising start. And the fact that these materials also display other desirable properties, such as chemical stability at higher temperatures, could be useful in future space missions to Venus and Mercury, where scorchingly high temps would otherwise melt ordinary metals.

The boron nitride they’ve developed is currently the world’s second hardest material, with a Vickers hardness of 113 gigapascals (GPa). Hexagonal boron nitride was once reported to be even tougher than this cubic form of the material, but that claim was based on theoretical simulations and it’s too difficult to produce in large quantities to test.