Wurtzite Boron Nitride Is 58% Stronger Than Diamonds

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Diamonds are the toughest natural substances known to man – but researchers have found a material that is 58% stronger than them in one important way. Scientists have determined that a material called wurtzite boron nitride, or w-BN, can withstand significant compressive pressures under an indenter. A related compound, lonsdaleite, which is carbon-based, can also withstand this stress, but it cannot be created naturally or synthetically as easily as w-BN because it requires the extreme heat and pressure that occur during volcanic eruptions.

Both w-BN and lonsdaleite have a tetrahedral crystal structure, rather than the face-centred cubic shape that is typical of carbon. It was thought that their tetrahedral structure might not be strong enough to withstand high stresses, but computer simulations now show that they can. The reason lies in the materials’ response to compression. Under normal compressive loads, they flip atomic bonds within themselves to conserve their volume. But under the very large stresses generated by the indenter, they become much stronger, reaching an indentation strength of 114 GPa – well beyond the 97 GPa value of a diamond.

The results have been published in the journal Physical Review Letters. They have rekindled hopes for creating a diamond-like material that is more robust than carbon, but this could take years because of the difficulty involved in replicating the complex chemistry and ultra-high temperatures required to create it. A similar study last year claimed to have made a diamond-like form of boron nitride by reversing the process that created a similar compound containing carbon and nitrogen atoms, but it fell short of the mark set by the new results.