Diamonds. First, the figures. To create one carat of a girl’s best friend, it is necessary to shift one thousand tonnes of rock and earth, use 3,890 litres of water and 108kg of carbon emissions. Enough, you would imagine, to put off all but the most intrepid, or indeed the most greedy.
In Uncle Vanya, Chekov wrote, with nothing to go by except his imagination: "We shall find peace. We shall hear angels, we shall see the sky sparkling with diamonds." Turns out he wasn’t speaking just metaphorically. A British environmentalist and millionaire has declared he can now create diamonds made entirely from the sky.
Simply put, the carbon dioxide is captured directly from the atmosphere to form the diamonds using wind and solar energy with rainwater. If you are wondering, "Hey, why didn’t I think of that before?" the answer might lie in the details.
It involves something called chemical vapour deposition and requires putting a "diamond seed" within a chamber filled with methane gas and heated to 800C, causing the carbon elements to bond to create the diamond. This is expected to take a few billion years less than the traditional technique of growing it underground.
Perhaps everything is as simple as it sounds, perhaps some of the details have been left out, perhaps in the year of the pandemic we have all grown either excessively cynical or excessively hopeful, but reactions are bound to be mixed, with discussions along the lines of the creationists vs. evolutionists debate.
Or perhaps it will be more along the lines of the old-diamond vs new-diamond groups, each claiming theirs is the authentic product. It should be fun.
When palaeontologists discovered our most famous ancestor in Ethiopia in the 1970s (she was three million years old), they named her ‘Lucy’, after the Beatles song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Somehow, ‘British millionaire in the sky with diamonds’ does not have the same ring to it. Yet, last year, some 142 million carats of diamond were mined worldwide (traditional method). So if our millionaire succeeds, he won’t have to worry where his next meal is coming from.
Meanwhile, we can ask if the same technique or something similar can be used to produce gasoline out of thin air, or food, or vaccines for coronaviruses. Modern alchemy should be about alleviating misery, not about converting base metal into gold. The answer, like love, is all around us. Or maybe we are reading too many messages in the sky.
A tooth is much more to be prized than a diamond, wrote Cervantes in Don Quixote. He may be right. In which case, let’s see how we can make teeth from the sky.