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Lab-grown red diamonds with an atomic defect could one day replace GPS systems thanks to their remarkable sensitivity to magnetic waves, scientists have suggested.

A team at Element Six, a tech company based in Oxfordshire, are exploring the remarkable properties of crystals with a so-called ‘nitrogen vacancy defect’ – a gap in the atomic lattice at the heart of the diamond.

Cutting tool

These diamonds have demonstrated incredible sensitivity to magnetic waves at room temperature, and are currently able to detect the passing of a car 300 metres away.

Such a breakthrough could make driverless cars a reality, as it would allow autonomous vehicles to move safely around each other.

“If you have a device that is capable of sensing the surrounding magnetic fields, it also knows where it is,” explained principal research scientist Richard Bodkin. “So once you can harness all of those technologies into a single device, there is no reason why driverless cars can’t be realised.”

Driverless car

However such a development could be decades away, the scientists warned. Their work is focused on improving the magnetic sensitivity of synthetic diamonds, which could also be used to replace MRI sensors. This could result in a helmet or handheld scanner that would probe a patient’s body without putting them inside an MRI tube.

Element Six primarily focuses on developing diamond-edged cutting tools for use in heavy industry, such as drill bits for oil and gas companies. It is majority owned by diamond mining giant De Beers.

The company is also looking at how to use synthetic diamonds in quantum computing, a highly theoretical field that promises computational power far in excess of today’s digital machines.

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