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For decades boron nitride has been considered the second hardest material in existence, with applications ranging from abrasives like diamonds to ceramic coatings for high-temperature equipment. However, recent research has shown that a pure single-phase form of wurtzite boron nitride could actually be even harder than diamonds—though these claims are still based on theoretical simulations.
Wurtzite boron nitride, also known as w-BN, is a hexagonal material composed of atoms of boron and nitrogen alongside carbon. This super-hard material is also a thermally and chemically stable compound that can be made into ceramics that see use in high-temperature engineering equipment, such as space vehicles and their engines. It’s also a common ingredient in lubricants and conductive fillers.
The hardness of w-BN is thanks to its unique structure that gives it some flexibility, such as when stressed. During this process some of its bonds will re-orient themselves and relieve the tension, just as they do in diamonds. This enables w-BN to achieve a higher Vickers hardness rating than any other known material, including diamonds.
However, only two substances have ever been claimed to be harder than diamonds—the rare mineral lonsdaleite and a form of w-BN that’s found in the aftermath of volcanic eruptions. Though simulations have shown that both will withstand 18% more stress than diamonds, no one has been able to test these claims since the materials don’t exist in large quantities anywhere on Earth.
Recently, researchers have successfully synthesised a pure form of w-BN by using a special process and ultra-high pressures. They then used X-ray diffraction and TEM to confirm its composition and mechanical properties, such as Vickers hardness. To further demonstrate its impressive strength, they then compared it to diamonds and other exotic materials. The results show that w-BN has a higher hardness rating than both diamonds and molybdenum carbide, which is currently the third-hardest material.