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Inventor, 89, Helps Make Diamonds More Affordable

Zalman M. Shapiro isn’t out to become the next Tiffany & Co. or DeBeers. But the 89-year-old chemist from Pittsburgh has invented a new method to mass-produce large, gem-quality diamonds quickly and economically from tiny, natural “seed” diamonds, a feat for which he recently received his 15th patent.

Faced with a melting ice cream cone at age 6, he conceived his first “invention”—an edible dam to catch any drips. “Conceptually, it worked but I didn’t patent that idea,” Shapiro chuckles. Listening to a chemist uncle talk about work intrigued the aspiring scientist. Shapiro’s schools had no labs, so the teenager bought chemistry sets for experiments. “I liked fixing our appliances as well,” he recalls. “I guess I’ve always been a problem solver.”

While someday consumers may buy diamond jewelry at a fraction of its current price, Shapiro envisions his low-cost bling finding its way into various industrial applications: medical lasers, solar cells and cell phones. “A diamond is the hardest material known to man. It’s dense and conducts heat,” he says. “That’s why they call it ‘ice.’ Press a real diamond against your skin. It draws the heats away, leaving the skin cold.”

Layers of diamond dust could even be utilized as a coolant for microprocessors. “We could see computers do more and cost less,” he says. Shapiro estimates that the United States imported $40 billion in diamonds last year alone. Mass production could help lower America’s need for importation and reduce the national trade deficit.

Diamonds have been man-made for more than 50 years. But until now no one could find a way to do so without spending big bucks mimicking Mother Nature’s combo of high temperatures and extreme pressure. Shapiro’s method starts with tiny diamond crystals or seeds. Liquid carbon deposits itself layer by layer onto the seeds—similar to how cultured pearls are made—building into a diamond of any size.

Recently nominated for the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, Shapiro and his problem-solving skills have long aided his country. His work on nuclear reactors in the early 1950s at the Westinghouse Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory proved critical to the success of the USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine. Other advances were employed in the first commercial nuclear power plant and he is responsible for development of the first successful, nuclear-powered cardiac pacemaker.

Curiosity keeps him inventing a half-century later. “I’m endowed with the ability to see the relationship between seemingly unrelated ideas and to put them together to make a new product or process,” he says.

But Shapiro, who is married with three children, 10 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren, also views himself as a torchbearer for older adults, believing most people are unappreciative of the wisdom their elders gain from experience. “Seniors are marginalized,” he says. “I hope I might act as an example of how the elderly can contribute to society and the economy, not just be seen as a drain on resources.”

While Shapiro says his next task is to interest investors or companies in his idea, a 16th patent isn’t totally out of the question. “As long as you are alive and kicking and use gray matter, you are never too old. 

Laura Daily is a writer in Denver.

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