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Hard Stuff

  • Key Stage 3
  • Popular Activity
  • Topical

Type: Activity
Learning Strategy: Information retrieval
Topic: Bonding & structure

Most people think that diamond is the hardest material, but it has lost its crown! Scientists have recently made a new super hard material which may be cheaper – and better at cutting – than diamond. In this activity students consider how the scientists used scientific knowledge and creative thought to create the material.

11-14 How Science Works:
14 – 16 How science works: data, evidence, theories and explanations
1b How interpretation of data, using creative thought, provides evidence to test ideas and develop theories.

Published: 25th April 2007
Reviews & Comments: 3

Learning objectives

Students will:
• Work out how scientists created a new super hard material by studying data and using creative thought

Try the activity

You will need Acrobat Reader installed to open the activity sheets.

14 – 16 How science works: data, evidence, theories and explanations
1b How interpretation of data, using creative thought, provides evidence to test ideas and develop theories.

14 – 16
Chemical and material behaviour
6d the properties of a material determine its uses.

Please see downloadable teachers notes for more details of individual specificiations.

Running the activity

Display page 1 to set the scene and introduce the challenge.

Display page 2, which explains why metals like tungsten and titanium – and non-metals like diamond – are hard. In the new material, the metal rhenium makes the material hard to compress. The non-metal boron was also chosen as it forms strong bonds with rhenium, and can form a hard crystal under the right conditions.

Page 3 prompts students to plan questions for the journalist on page 1 to ask the team of scientists. Two questions are given already. Student groups make up two more questions focussing on:
• The data the scientists studied
• How the scientists thought creatively about the data to come up with the pair of materials in the new super-hard material

Students then speculate about answers the scientists would give to the four questions.

Students can record their questions and answers on page 3 if you wish.

Diamonds are actually the hardest naturally occurring material, and the third hardest material. Two artificial materials – aggregated diamond nanorods and ultrahard fullerite – are stronger than diamond, but like diamond both are made from carbon.

Diamond cutting tools cannot be used to cut iron or steel as the carbon in the diamond reacts to form iron carbide, wearing the tool down and strengthening the material being cut.

Extension Activity 1: Other Designer Materials include Thinsulate™, Composite Carbon Fibres, Kevlar™ and Gore-Tex™. Students could be set a research task to find out what properties scientists wanted in those materials and how they used scientific knowledge and creative thought to invent them.

Extension Activity 2: Students can carry out a practical activity using their creativity and scientific knowledge to make a "designer material" with improved strength.
• Make a rectangular mould (plasticine works well) into which plaster of Paris is poured (petroleum jelly inside the mould may help remove the plaster of Paris easily).
• When set, remove the "bar" of plaster of Paris from the mould, and raise the ends of it above the desk (e.g. on two blocks of wood).
• Add masses to the bar until it breaks.
• Repeat, with students choosing other materials to add to the plaster of Paris – e.g. thin layers of muslin, spaghetti, string etc.
• Please note that CLEAPPS recently sent out a warning regarding plaster of Paris, details of which are here:

News links

New Scientist
Article about the new material
Sarah Tolbert
The scientist's web page

Reviews & Comments

Write your online review to share your feedback and classroom tips with other teachers. How well does it work, how engaging is it, how did you use it, and how could it be improved?


Sep 15th, 2008

5 Star

Very good activity. I'll keep using this again and again.

Reviewer: Gill Mulliss


Nov 11th, 2007

5 Star

A really great resource, why has it taken me so long to find it?
The activities are stimulating and help students develop essential skills.

Reviewer: amanda lewis

Metal Cars

Apr 27th, 2007

4 Star

I ran this activity with a Year 8 class in the last week of term before Easter, when we had just finished the Blast Furnace, rusting etc. They were all hugely enthusiastic - I was a little taken aback when they said they wanted their ideal car to be 'Pimp my Ride'd. I wondered whether I should have been hearing this, however, they explained it to me and I now feel that I learned at least as much as them from the lesson! A few girls did me beautiful pictures of their ideal car - I was especially pleased with a very creative girl who did me a Mg Rover, which of course ran on magnesium and didn't give out any pollution. A very good end of term activity - but just hope the Head or some important visitor doesn't come in when Pimp my Ride is being suggested.

Reviewer: susan wilkinson