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The mineral lonsdaleite is the second hardest material on Earth, and a new study suggests it may be even tougher than diamond. The researchers are not able to physically examine this material, however, because it is so rare and can only be found in microscopic amounts within meteorites and the extremely hot and pressured volcanic eruptions that produced it. So they used a computer simulation to see how the material would respond under stress.
The scientists simulated how the atomic bonds of lonsdaleite and another substance known as wurtzite boron nitride would react to the stress of a diamond-tipped probe pushing down on them. They discovered that when these materials are subject to excessive amounts of pressure, their atomic bonds flip and they produce much stronger materials than the unpressurized substances. Lonsdaleite, for example, becomes 57% stronger under the same conditions, with a strength of 152 GPa, while wurtzite boronnitride is 18% tougher with 114 GPa.
Wurtzite boron nitride is the next step in the generation of super abrasive materials after cubic boron nitride and white graphite (which is similar to hexagonal boron nitride but has a tetrahedral structure instead of graphite’s face-centered cubic one). It also has superior cutting properties, as it can sharpen itself during cutting thanks to its polycrystalline structure. This new research suggests that wurtzite boron could withstand 18% more stress than diamond and lonsdaleite 58% more. This is an exciting result, but we’ll have to wait until a way can be found to make enough of these materials for physical testing.