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Diamonds are the hardest natural materials known to man, but they may have been beaten by a newly discovered mineral. Scientists think that lonsdaleite, a material with a different shape for carbon atoms, is around 58 percent harder than the precious gem. This makes it nearly impossible to cut or break, even with something as hard as a diamond hammer.
A material’s hardness is measured by measuring how much force it takes to indent it. The harder the material, the higher the number on the Vickers hardness scale. Metals like titanium or tungsten carbide can withstand more than a million pounds of pressure before being broken, but they still don’t come close to matching diamond’s legendary scratch-resistance.
Until recently, scientists believed that cubic boron nitride (CBN) was the hardest natural material on Earth. It was created in 1957 and has a similar structure to diamond, replacing the carbon with nitrogen and boron atoms. Its hardness was first reported to be strong enough to scratch diamond, but subsequent tests proved it was not.
Researchers now believe that CBN can be made even tougher by compressing it. When compressed, wurtzite boron nitride transforms into lonsdaleite, which is 58% harder than pure diamond, according to simulations. Scientists believe this could be a major breakthrough in the field of materials, especially as we learn more about what influences a material’s hardness and how to create it to order. It is hoped that this knowledge will allow scientists to design and build materials to be both extremely hard and light.