So lots of Sci-fi works use mono-crystalline diamond as a wonder material used to build all sorts of impressive and in some cases seemingly impossible structures, I'd like to ask about the science of this particular assertion that diamonds are the building material that makes anything possible. Of particular concern for me is that while diamond is hard it's not particularly wear resistant and I'm really not sure it's as hard, especially in tension, as people seem to think. So please lay some numbers on me, in context, about what diamond is actually capable of in the field of construction.


This question asks for hard science. All answers to this question should be backed up by equations, empirical evidence, scientific papers, other citations, etc. Answers that do not satisfy this requirement might be removed. See the tag description for more information.

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    $\begingroup$ Diamond, while hardness is a huge plus, can be brittle, and of course, under the right atmospheric conditions, is flammable. $\endgroup$ – Joe Sep 5 '17 at 19:51
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    $\begingroup$ Some of the points made in answers to What early tools might be devised on a planet where diamonds were abundant? may apply. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Sep 5 '17 at 19:53
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    $\begingroup$ Diamond is hard but brittle - You can shatter it with a hammer. I feel a lot of writers and creators don't realize/know the difference. $\endgroup$ – Andon Sep 5 '17 at 19:57
  • $\begingroup$ Unless you really are looking for the mathematics and empirical data behind diamonds, the hard-science will limit your responses. There are some on this site that will even downvote answers because they don't meet the stringent requirements of the tag. If you don't need it, you should remove it. $\endgroup$ – JBH Sep 5 '17 at 21:30
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    $\begingroup$ I fail to see a question here. Of course diamonds are not used for building buildings for a number of reasons - first of all economic reasons (which you cannot ignore because they are a result of what diamonds are). What do you want to know? Using diamonds as bricks? Building a single diamond house? The technical implementation? How tall such a building could be? What kind of building should be constructed out of diamonds? In what way it would be superior to more obvious carbon modifications, for example nanotubes? Could you maybe formulate a clear question? $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Sep 5 '17 at 21:34

Let's look at what MatWeb has to say about natural diamonds (matweb is a material property database and is generally considered reliable, although not the end-all authority). I'll also show some properties you would see in a mild steel where available or another material.

  • Modulus of Elasticity: 700-1200 GPa (Steel: 200-207 GPa)
  • Hardness: 10 Mohs, 8000 Knoop (Steel: 228-682 Knoop)
  • Tensile Strength: 1600 MPa (Steel: 2617 MPa)
  • Fracture Toughness 3.40 MPa-m^(1/2) (Steel: 80.9-143 MPa-m^(1/2) )
  • Compressive Strength 8680 - 16 530 MPa (Portland Cement: 57.9 MPa)
  • Thermal Conductivity: 2000 W/mK (Steel: 21.9-52 W/mK)

It should also be noted that:

$$C + O_2 \rightarrow CO_2 $$

This makes diamonds nice fuel packets in an environment with oxygen. This should be considered in any construction project where diamonds are available, as well as any other chemistry that the environment provides.

What Do These Numbers Mean?

Diamond is really good at resisting deformation and thermal conduction. Diamond doesn't deform much and the strength is relatively low: it suddenly breaks with minimal warning. A diamond bridge would be fine one minute and then suddenly destroyed the next, no "bending, sagging, or groaning" to warn people.

Diamond is also terrible at resisting cyclic loads and cracks will easily propagate: the fracture toughness tells us these things. In short: diamond is good for one-time uses, but terrible at fatigue.

Almost all buildings IRL experience cyclic loads (and therefore experience fatigue): people walking around in them, wind on the outside of it, water and air moving through pipes and ducts, and so on. Even some fantastic applications would experience cyclic loading: using a diamond wire to hold your rotating space station together would be a bad choice because water, people, and equipment sloshes around, creating the fatigue cycles which would destroy it.

Diamond could be used in some fantastic options, however. If you wanted a reaction chamber (and walls of carbon are OK) that has some continuous reaction occurring within it for a very long time, like in a continuously accelerating generation ship, diamond is a good option.

Diamond can be used in a related field: HVAC systems. Diamond is amazing at conducting heat to and away from things. Diamond could be used to support stuff like RTGs and radiator fins, combining the heat management and structural systems. Once again, it's only a good choice as long as these things don't experience much in the way of variable acceleration and loads!

  • $\begingroup$ Also, it burns. $\endgroup$ – Vashu Sep 5 '17 at 23:21
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    $\begingroup$ @Vashu It's a good point, but the fatigue is a larger concern: you can fire proof, but you can't fatigue-proof. $\endgroup$ – PipperChip Sep 5 '17 at 23:32
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    $\begingroup$ Completely agree that fatigue is more important. But combustability is worth mentioning too and it is unexpected for many people - anybody understands why glass bridge is bad idea, but you rarely see burning diamonds :) $\endgroup$ – Vashu Sep 6 '17 at 0:30
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you, this is exactly the kind of thing I was looking for. Certainly not the material to build something that undergoes re-entry out of for a start. $\endgroup$ – Ash Sep 6 '17 at 10:28
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    $\begingroup$ @Eth Good find, but I just assumed pure diamond. In reality, diamond as a bulk material would have defects and grain boundaries, which would affect the diamond's behavior in fatigue. ADN takes advantage of grain boundaries to decrease its brittleness, but that's more a discussion for a fatigue class and less so for Worldbuilding... $\endgroup$ – PipperChip Sep 6 '17 at 23:12

So I read your question and it intrigued me, so I did a little digging with the google machine and this is what I have gathered.

DISCLAIMER I just did some digging on google and did some (minimal) creative thinking about production. I am not an expert on diamonds.

  1. As we all know they are hard, to be exact it is the hardest naturally occurring substance that we currently know of, it is a 10 on the mohs scale of mineral hardness.
  2. its tensile strength is up to 60GPa (Gigapascals - denotes tectonic stresses and pressures.) naturally and it is thought to range even higher (90 - 225 GPa) depending on the perfection of the lattice that composes the diamond. For comparison, multi-walled Carbon nanotubes have been tested at up to 100GPa (15 million PSI), and steel weighs in between 53700PSI and 63800PSI. So after the math (15,000,000/100)*60 we end up with 9,000,000 PSI for diamonds.

  3. Toughness, the ability to resist scratching, leaves something to be wanted, as it only rates a Fair to Good, this is not true for Ballas diamonds as they are a polycrystalline structure resulting in a greater number of bonds and fewer weak points. Long story short you hit a diamond with a sledgehammer and you have a good chance of breaking it, that being said, a diamonds pressure resistance is in excess of 600GPa (90 Million PSI)

  4. For construction purposes, it is also good to note several things: One, naturally occurring diamonds range from white to black but at no point are they 100% transparent. Two, Diamonds have a natural electrical resistance of 100 GΩ·m to 1 EΩ·m[28] (1011 to 1018 Ω·m) and most natural Blue diamonds are semiconductors due to boron impurities. Three, Diamonds covalent bonds actually make it a Good conductor of heat at 2200 W/(m*K), 5 times better than copper. Four, diamonds will oxidize if heated over 700 degrees Celsius making it less thermally stable than graphite, however, with the removal of oxygen and addition of pressure, it is theorized that temperatures exceeding 3000 degrees Celsius could be withstood.

So in conclusion, Diamonds are the hardest known natural element, that with some futuristic way of production could theoretically be stronger than Carbon Nanotubes, Resist 90,000,000+ PSI, resist electrical damage, transfer heat, and withstand 3000 degrees plus weather on some far off planet with high gravity.

I just want to say that this is all just on diamonds with some reference materials, I'm sure that in a futuristic society of which you are the "dungeon master" (per say) they would have a way of making a diamond alloy with Buckminsterfullerene, or steel or something yet to be discovered. So here are my observations, my sources are below, and I wish you luck in building the perfect diamond city!






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    $\begingroup$ None of this answers the question about the effectiveness of using diamonds as a building material. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Sep 5 '17 at 20:46
  • $\begingroup$ I don't know what kind of building is in mind, if there are windows to be made of diamond, or if it's the support beams that are Diamond, I realise I don't have a list of every possible way it could be used, I wanted to give OP a starting point to see if what he had in mind would be scientifically possible in his universe, if he has specific examples he wants I'll gladly look into it and answer questions, but as a starting point for how it might be used and some hard data on diamonds, that's what I was going for. $\endgroup$ – Akmedrah Sep 5 '17 at 20:53
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    $\begingroup$ Links to Wikipedia are insufficient to support a hard-science question. Answers to hard-science questions are expected to be supported by "equations, empirical evidence, scientific papers." $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Sep 5 '17 at 21:18
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    $\begingroup$ @Akmedrah, do you mind checking your sources, particularly "Material_properties_of_diamond"? Toughness is NOT "the ability to resist scratching". $\endgroup$ – Alexander Sep 5 '17 at 21:46
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    $\begingroup$ It seems that you've just copied the list of sources used by Wikipedia, rather than sources you directly used. I'd recommend rewriting this answer based directly on those sources, not simply Wikipedia's explanation. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Sep 6 '17 at 3:35

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