August 31, 2004 – The Alberta diamonds Anetta Banas studies are a far cry from the British crown jewels, but they may turn out to be real gems nonetheless.
The University of Alberta masters student is working in the campus DeBeers Lab with Dr. Thomas Stachel, Canada Research Chair in diamonds. Banas is studying the characteristics of uncut Northern Alberta diamonds--small stones only one millimetre in diameter.
These tiny diamonds may offer some hints about the formation of the precious gems and where larger, more marketable diamonds might be found.
"It's a relatively new discovery, and relatively little has been done in the field of Alberta diamonds," she said.
"Canadian diamonds in general are relatively new and so a lot of study goes into them just to see where they fit within worldwide distributions based on their shape, based on their impurities and things like that."
The diamonds Banas is analysing have been found at different mining sites in the Buffalo Hills area of Northern Alberta. The discovery of these gems in the area surprised researchers, since the craton within which the stones were found is quite young. Cratons are stable portions of the Earth's crust which have not experienced plate tectonic or other geological activity for a long period of time.
It makes more sense to find diamonds in areas like Siberia and South Africa which sit on older cratons, Banas said.
Because the discovery of these diamonds was unexpected, the young researcher is curious as to whether they have many different features than their larger cousins found in older rock formations.
To date, Banas has found evidence of some unique features to Alberta diamonds. Using an infrared spectrometer which detects amounts of nitrogen in the carbon-based gems, she is finding that the Alberta variety seems to lack nitrogen. Since we live in a nitrogen-rich atmosphere, nitrogen is commonly found within diamonds, Banas explained.
"So it's a little bit odd that these diamonds don't have any nitrogen in them at all," she said. For Banas, this research is intriguing as the bulk of world diamond research has involved larger gems.
"That's one of the big things about this study--because the South African diamonds and the Siberian diamonds and the Russian diamonds are very well studied because they've been around for such a long time," she said. "And because the mines are so big there, they just mine these big, huge diamonds and that's all they take for their study, because they have such an abundance of them."
There are many things that geologists do not understand about diamond formation, including how fast diamonds grow, she added.
"Is it like an instantaneous process, or does it take two days or 10 years or a hundred years?” That issue ultimately relates to questions about the history of the Earth and the geological processes within the planet. Research on the smaller diamonds may eventually offer some answers, she said.
And if the results of Banas' research indicate substantial differences between Alberta diamonds and larger varieties, diamond mining companies many better predict where diamonds can be found, and where the larger stones are.
"Hopefully we'll be able to find out if there is a difference, and if there isn't difference, they're going to have to continue looking for everything and hopefully strike it rich," she said. "But if there is a difference, that'd be very helpful."
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