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April 28th, 2010
It's like walking into a bank vault. Pass codes secure the doors. The walls and floor are made of reinforced concrete up to 2 metres thick - all built on solid sandstone. The ventilation ducts have automatic shut-offs. Not even cellphone signals can sneak in.
All this might seem fitting given that the place houses diamonds by the hundred. Yet this is no vault. It's a lab in the Centre for Nanoscience and Quantum Information at the University of Bristol, UK, and the diamonds stored here are each no bigger than a speck of dust. Diamonds this size might not interest a bank robber, but they are turning out to be a physicist's best friend.
And it's not just diamonds. Gold and silver, too, are acquiring new allure in the lab. These materials' superlative hardness, lustre and resistance to corrosion have been prized for centuries, but reduce this stuff to the nanoscale and other characteristics emerge; valuable properties which promise to transform the way we build electrical gadgets of every kind. Welcome to the shiny new world of "blingtronics".
Unravelling the remarkable riches of this nano-world takes an exceptionally steady hand - which is why the Bristol lab is so solidly built. Here physicist Neil Fox spends his day manipulating delicate films of diamond as thin as a human hair. The experiments are so sensitive that even the faintest vibration could spell failure.
Fox aims to turn these diamond films into a new kind of solar cell, one that generates electricity by absorbing heat rather than visible-light wavelengths.
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