It would appear the industrial diamond market may be turned on its head shortly.
After more than 30 years of essentially ignoring a massive diamond deposit – a find whose scale dwarfs anything discovered previously anywhere in the world – Russian scientists have stepped up research on the Popigai Crater, according to Agence France-Presse.
Just how big is the deposit, located in the far north of Siberia? It is believed to hold trillions of carats of diamonds.
By comparison, Russia’s main diamond-mining region of Yakutia has known reserves of 1 billion carats, the wire service reported.
Yet, the impressive discovery has been known in Russia for decades. Soviet scientists uncovered the 60-mile Popigai Crater, left by a huge asteroid in Siberia 35 million years ago, many decades ago.
At the time, the impact zone of the crater revealed “a fine material that was actually super-compressed diamonds caking the permafrost,” according to Agence France-Presse.
But two things kept the discovery out of the news. For one, it remained a Soviet state secret for many years. Then, after the collapse of the USSR, the remoteness of the site – more than 1,000 miles from the main Trans-Siberian railway line – made mining all but impossible.
Interest is only now increasing because of efforts by the Novosibirsk-based Sobolev Institute of Geology and Mineralogy, which this week disclosed a rare bit of information about the deposit to the media.
According to the institute, the deposit is filled with industrial strength diamonds prized for use in deep-sea drilling and forging machine parts, rather than the expensive baubles that brides like to gaze at on their wedding day.
Sobolev Institute of Geology and Mineralogy Director Nikolai Pokhilenko told the RIA Novosti news agency Monday that the diamonds include other molecular forms of carbon. He said they could be twice as hard as conventional diamonds and therefore have superlative industrial qualities, according to The Associated Press.
That the USSR opted to keep the find secret is hardly surprising, given its command economy, Pokhilenko told Agence France-Presse in a telephone interview.
“We were building synthetic diamond plants at the time, so all the natural industrial diamond research was frozen,” he explained.
It appears Soviet experts were aware that the highly compressed diamonds found at sites such as the Popigai Crater were much stronger than those made by synthetic firms, but the Communist regime’s desire to promote the chemical industry and fulfill specific production quotas meant that the discovery went untapped, according to the wire service.
The field was left almost entirely unexplored for the subsequent 30 years, thanks not only to Soviet secrecy, but the faltering Russian economy in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of communism, which thwarted any serious attempts to mine the site.
Pokhilenko said the discovery was essentially forgotten until his institute picked up its study again three years ago.
“They only examined 0.3 percent of the entire territory of the crater and had already established 147 billion carats worth of (industrial) diamonds,” he said. “So we are talking about many trillion (carats).”
The find creates the possibility of Russia undercutting the synthetic diamond market now produced in China by being able to deliver a cheaper yet superior product.
“The Popigai Crater diamonds could turn everything upside down. And what happens to prices on this market then is unclear,” the Yakutnipromalmaz industrial diamond institute’s deputy director Gennady Nikitin said.
But before that can happen, Russia will have to overcome difficulties related to retrieving the diamonds from the remote location of the crater.