We all heard stories about diamonds being the toughest material on earth. They can cut through anything, and they’re virtually indestructible – you know the drill.
But there is one subject that is not often talked about; fire! What will happen if you burn a diamond, for instance? Can they even get burned? It’s hard to imagine, we admit. You picture in your head a perfectly cut diamond on a necklace or in a museum somewhere, but what the heck would it look like on fire?
Well, we did some research, and it turns out that some very interesting things can happen when you expose diamonds to a certain amount of heat. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. To understand how diamonds react to heat, we need to know what diamonds are in the first place.
So how about we get this thing going and see if we can solve the mystery?
What Will Happen If You Burn A Diamond?
The question that we are faced with is a simple one – can diamonds be burned? Sure, we could give you a yes or no answer, as a matter of fact, here it is:
YES, diamonds can be burned. Heck, anything can be burned if you expose it to enough heat, but you might run into a bit of trouble when you try to produce that heat.
See, diamonds are tough. And we’re not exaggerating that even a bit. They are the hardest material ever found on this beautiful planet of ours. For that reason, that material requires quite a bit of effort from your side to start burning; throwing it into a fire just won’t do the trick.
So why is that? Well, to understand how a diamond would go about catching on fire, we need to understand why things burn in the first place. Let’s take a look at the most common source of fuel that humans use – wood!
Well, maybe it’s not the most common, but timber is the most common source when it comes to starting a fire. To light a piece of wood on fire, you usually need a bit more than just a lighter and some patience. We place some newspapers and sticks underneath a log and wait for there to be enough fire to catch the whole thing, right?
So if we chuck a diamond into the already lit fire, will it burn just like the log? Unfortunately, no, but you might have noticed that wood does combust. What we’re saying is that it catches on fire and doesn’t just melt when exposed to heat.
See, fire is just a chemical reaction called a combustion reaction. It’s what happens when certain substances (usually gases) react to oxygen while exposed to heat at the same time. Wood, for instance, is filled with these substances. As it starts to heat up, they get released and start reacting to all the oxygen that we have in the atmosphere.
No oxygen means no combustion. This is why you can’t light a fire in space, no matter what sci-fi movies tell you.
Alright then, so do diamonds contain the substances that are needed for combustion? If so, do they let them out when exposed to heat? To figure that out, we need to look at what exactly diamonds are made of!
Don’t worry, though; the chemistry lessons pretty much hit the brakes right away when it comes to the world’s hardest material. Diamonds are made of carbon. That’s right, not a combination of carbon and some other tough and famous element, just carbon.
We’ll get into how diamonds are formed here on Earth in a minute, but the only thing you need to know right now is that they’re made out of just that one element. So what does that mean for our burning question?
Well, it means that fire and the combustion that is needed for it is impossible. If there are no gases, or any substances for that matter, that a material can release to interact with oxygen when exposed to heat, the fire just can’t happen.
Well, that’s fine! After all, we were not talking about setting diamonds on fire – we were talking about burning them! Burning a substance can mean a lot of things. If you ever tried putting an open flame on some plastic, you might have noticed that there’s not much fire there either. But there is a reaction – melting!
When exposed to heat, some materials start melting. They go from being a solid to a liquid. It’s how metal, plastic, glass, and many other substances get molded into a million shapes and sizes.
Considering that fire is out the window when it comes to diamonds, how about we try and melt them? Do diamonds have a melting point? Heck, what is a melting point anyways?
Learn More: Will A Diamond Shatter If Heated?
Do Diamonds Melt?
Okay, so we have established so far that there is no way to light a diamond on fire. No matter what kind of heat we expose diamonds to, there’s nothing within it that will combust. But if we keep increasing the said heat, something has to happen, right?
Well, yes, every material has a melting point, and melting is the next reaction in line that we have to check to find answers.
Melting, just like combustion, is a chemical process. And that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Melting (or fusion) is a phase transition process. When exposed to enough heat, some materials will go from being a solid object to a liquid. But why does that happen?
Well, all objects are made of the same elements. You know how it works – atoms, ions, molecules, etc. Well, those ions and molecules need to be arranged in a specific way to be qualified as a particular element.
For an object to be solid, the molecules need to be tightly packed, which in turn makes the space that they’re occupying smaller than the one liquid occupies. Not only that, the molecules in a liquid are much more chaotic. They literally have no structure to them.
Diamonds, for instance, are literal poster boys for tightly packed molecules. They are, as we already mentioned, made out of just one element – carbon. But how those carbon atoms are packed together is what determines the element they’re presented as. Diamonds and graphite, for instance, are basically the same things (element-wise) but in a different arrangement.
Take ice, for instance; it’s the perfect model for us to explain how this all works. When we freeze water into an ice cube, it goes from a liquid to a solid. But take the cube out of the freezer, and it starts melting and becoming a liquid again.
Put the ice cube on a hot pan, and it will turn into a liquid even faster before eventually evaporating. Applying pressure to the ice will result in the same effect because, again, the pressure will affect the arrangement of the molecules.
But you might have noticed a couple of problems in this whole operation. We’ve all heard about diamonds getting exposed to incredible amounts of heat and pressure when they’re forming hundreds of miles beneath the earth’s surface. So do the same rules apply to them?
Well, yes, but the circumstances are different. It seems because diamonds are made in such amazingly harsh conditions, they need even more difficult conditions to start transitioning between phases. It is possible, of course, but it’s far from easy.
The melting point of a diamond is around 4000 degrees Celsius (that’s about 7200 degrees Fahrenheit). At least that’s the number that you’ll find while researching the subject. But it’s a bit deceiving in reality – let us explain.
See, while that temperature is the melting point for diamonds, it’s actually the point at which a diamond will start to transition between phases in conditions without oxygen. This number represents the melting point in an entirely different atmosphere!
So what about our atmosphere? Can diamonds evaporate on good-old earth? Yes, they absolutely can!
If we try to heat a diamond to the temperature of 763 degrees Celsius (1405 degrees Fahrenheit), it will start to evaporate. But that can’t be right, the world’s hardest rock turning into vapor at a measly 700 degrees?
Well, this planet has a trick up its sleeve that those darn diamonds didn’t think of – oxidation.
Remember how we said that diamonds are just carbon atoms packed together tightly? Well, it turns out that carbon, when exposed to oxygen under extreme heat or pressure, starts to oxidize. The world’s toughest rock will become just plain old carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide.
So to answer the main question that made us go on this journey in the first place – diamonds will vaporize if you burn them at high enough temperatures. So can you burn a diamond with a lighter? Not even a little bit, no. But if you manage to get that heat up to, say, 800 degrees – the diamond is done for!
How We Can Manipulate Carbon?
While it would be hard just to put a diamond to an open flame and expect it to burn, we have proof that diamonds do transition between phases when exposed to enough heat and pressure. So in a sense, we CAN burn them, but what does a burnt diamond look like?
It’s hard to imagine diamonds just starting to disappear and vaporize; we’re just not used to it. But still, other phase transitions are possible. It’s just that the conditions are nearly impossible to maintain for that to happen.
For instance, we can get a diamond to melt if we apply just the right heat with the addition of specific atmospheric pressure. But would the result be a melted diamond? Well, science says – no, it wouldn’t be.
Diamonds look like diamonds because the carbon atoms are arranged in a crystal structure. Sure, that structure can change into a more chaotic one. And if it does, we could say that we have achieved to melt a diamond. But unfortunately, the resulting substance is no longer a diamond – it’s liquid carbon.
Diamonds are created by arranging carbon atoms in a crystal structure; as soon as that structure is rearranged – the object is no longer a diamond but just plain old carbon.
In a similar sense, if the conditions aren’t just perfect for that evaporation that we mentioned, the diamond will just turn into graphite before it starts to transition from a solid to a vapor (gas).
So what can we gather from all this information? Well, it turns out that even though they’re incredibly tough while exposed to the conditions we live in here on Earth, their simple structure makes them vulnerable to a lot of other conditions and atmospheres.
Luckily, we’re not planning to move to different planets just yet, so we can still call diamonds the toughest rocks around!
How Diamonds Are Formed?
We’ve covered all the possible phases and transitions between them, but what is it about the crystal structure that makes diamonds so special?
Diamonds are made hundreds of miles underneath the earth’s surface. Not only that, they take anywhere from one to three million years to make. The harsh conditions that are necessary for their creation are just a part of the equation; the ‘cooking time’ is just as important.
When they get packed together in those conditions, it becomes tough to unpack once they’re brought up to the surface. Sure, there is a way to burn them and melt them, as we mentioned, but the pressure and the temperature needed are hardly easy to find.
This is why diamonds are great not only as beautiful crystals that can last multiple lifetimes but as powerful tools in many industries. Diamonds, as it turns out, are not forever, sure, but in the right conditions, they can get pretty darn close to forever!
So the next time you look at a diamond, just remember, it may be just an interesting arrangement of carbon atoms – but those atoms are stronger than anything else we’ve managed to find on this planet so far!
Learn More: What Do Diamonds Look Like When They Are Found?
Well, here we are at the end of the journey. Diamonds are always a fascinating subject, but we just love talking about their sheer toughness more than anything else! The fact that even an open flame wouldn’t even faze them is just amazing.
And yet, we somehow found these tough crystals and turned them into beautiful jewelry! That goes to show you how far human culture has gotten. We just hope that from now on, you’ll know exactly what you’re looking at when you run into a diamond. They are the perfect blend of science and beauty!