Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Where Do Diamonds Come From?

Rough diamondDiamonds are possible one of the most sought after kinds of precious stones today. Their sparkle and lustre draws envious looks and unrivalled fascination. From diamond jewellery and being the symbol of marriage engagement to the birthstone for April, to functional industrial use, the diamond is truly versatile.

Let's take a look at the genesis of this remarkable gem, which not only comes from the depths of the earth, but from surprising origins too.

Yielded from the Earth

The early stages of a diamond's life begins billions of years ago. It's remarkable to think that the carbon used in a diamond's creation was around when the Earth was still cooling down after its initial formation. Early trees and other flora were crushed and exposed to high pressures and heat, primarily from volcanic bursts, burying the carbon deeper. Because of this, diamonds are actually formed several kilometres below the Earth's surface.

The resulting pressures change the atomic structure within the carbon, forcing four carbon atoms to surround a single carbon atom. This tetrahedral shape is a building block for diamonds, giving them their clear appearance and hardness. Depending on the pressures at work, diamonds can vary in colour from completely clear to being blue, green, red, black, orange or brown.

With diamonds being pushed so far down beneath the surface of the Earth, how can we mine them? Every now and again, carrot-shaped surges of magma violently push upwards. These surges are called kimberlite pipes, named after Kimberly in South Africa where they were first discovered. Kimberlite pipes effectively transport the any minerals some 2.5 kilometres below the suface. As the cooled magma erodes, diamonds are left behind in the space the 'pipe' occupied.

Diamonds from beyond

It's not just Earth that provides a source of diamonds. Outer space can also bring its own gifts, although the diamonds that are formed from an extraterrestrial influence are somewhat different to their Earth-bound cousins. Meteorites have been discovered that yield their own diamonds. While these meteorites can be covered in, and contain, millions of diamonds, each one is tiny. In fact, they have been measured as being smaller than a single grain of salt.

There is some supposition as to where these tiny diamonds come from. They might be even older than the Earth, formed billions upon billions of years before, perhaps as the result of a dying star going supernova. Perhaps the diamonds formed as the meteorite entered the Earth's atmosphere, where the heat and pressure is so great that the formation of diamonds could be replicated as underground, but in very different circumstances.

One thing's for sure, diamonds will continue to intrigue and captivate us, whether they're from beneath our feet or from beyond the stars.

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