Can you REALLY make diamonds out of thin air? That’s the bizarre claim by one of Britain’s most eccentric tycoons. But as JANE FRYER discovers, it might just be a gem of an idea
- Dale Vince, 59, launched Sky Diamonds, so called as ingredients come from sky
- His method begins by sucking CO2 from the atmosphere with a small machine
- He says other man-made diamonds come from a process driven by fossil fuels
- Eco tycoon said: ‘I want to challenge the industry, to disrupt it, to call time on it’
Some people have a level of self-confidence that makes them seem almost alien to the rest of us mere mortals.
Dale Vince, a former New Age traveller- turned-multimillionaire founder and owner of green energy company Ecotricity — today decked out in pink trainers, designer jeans, a tight black T-shirt, a jazzy scarf, blingy jewellery and extremely white teeth — is one of them.
He is among the richest eco tycoons in the country. He has beaten Tesla billionaire Elon Musk in a court battle over electric car charging points.
He owns a vegan football team, Forest Green Rovers (for whom he banned all meat and hired Robbie Williams’ favourite chefs to prepare a new vegan menu). Oh yes, and he is thinking of running for Parliament in the next election — he has previously donated more than £250,000 to the Labour Party.
Sky’s the limit: Dale Vince with his eco-friendly diamonds. Last week he launched Sky Diamonds, so called as all the ingredients come from wind, sun, rainwater and carbon dioxide
So it goes without saying that when, ten years ago, he had the idea of making diamonds out of thin air, he was not remotely daunted by the task in hand.
‘I realised it was a good way of storing all the carbon. It didn’t occur to me that it wouldn’t be possible. It just had to be, didn’t it?’ he says, speaking at his office in Stroud. ‘I just thought, “Let’s make it happen” ’.
And he did. Last week he launched Sky Diamonds, so called because all the ingredients come from the sky — wind, sun, rainwater and carbon dioxide.
Natural diamonds were formed billions of years ago deep within the Earth’s crust where extreme heat and pressure caused carbon atoms to crystallise, which means that extracting them is an environmental nightmare.
To produce a single carat diamond requires the removal of 1,000 tonnes of rocks and soil, 100kg of CO2 and almost 4,000 litres of water.
‘You can see the mines from space,’ says Dale, 59. ‘And the conditions! Workers wading up to their waists in mud.’
Here at his bright, shiny offices in Gloucestershire, things are rather different.
For starters, Dale’s method — which has so far cost him £5 million — begins by sucking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere with a small machine.
It is then liquefied, purified, mixed with hydrogen obtained from rainwater and made into methane gas.
This is then pumped on to ‘diamond seeds’ — 5-7mm slithers of diamond — in a small mill (about the size of a table).
And, hey presto, heated to 8,000 c, the carbon in the gas attaches to the seeds, forming the crystal structure of a diamond. The whole process takes about two weeks.
While Dale’s are not the only man-made diamonds in the world — six other laboratories are working on creating them, including one owned by industry leader De Beers — the others, he says, use bottled gasses which come from an industrial process driven by fossil fuels. ‘Ours is carbon negative because it cleans up the sky!’
To produce a single carat diamond requires the removal of 1,000 tonnes of rocks and soil, 100kg of CO2 and almost 4,000 litres of water
Even better, neither me, Dale, his second wife Kate, or even the most expert jewellers will be able distinguish Dale’s diamonds — now accredited and certified by the International Gemological Institute — from their natural equivalent. Only laboratory tests would reveal small differences in the crystalline structure.
To demonstrate, he opens a black spectacles case and blinds me with about £1 million worth of stones.
‘They’re a bit of fun, aren’t they?’ he says, jiggling them about in his long, thin hand. At the moment, production is on a small scale — about 15 carats every fortnight — and he has no idea how much it will cost or how they’ll be priced, other than ‘fairly and openly’.
‘I really haven’t got round to working it out yet. But we’re not doing it for the money. I don’t do anything for the money. I do it for the mission.’
Dale has never been the sort to think small.
Even as a child growing up in Norfolk, he was forever worrying about the environment, fossil fuels and sustainability.
‘I was bothered by the finite nature of energy. When I was 12 or 13, I’d see cars everywhere but no one was talking about what would happen when the oil ran out. It was obviously something we should have been thinking about!’
He also loathed meat — ‘Revolting — the taste, the texture, just the thought of it’ — along with authority of all kinds and struggled to find common ground with his parents — particularly his father, a lorry driver. He didn’t fit in at school, either.
‘I was bullied — physically and verbally — for being different. And I was very different. I didn’t fit in, but I didn’t want to. I didn’t want be like anyone else.’
He left, aged 15, with nine O-levels, later took a computer science A-level and managed a year at Staffordshire Polytechnic studying computing before dropping out.
‘It was too long. Too boring. And the people!’ he says. ‘I couldn’t spend my life with them!’
A few years later, he became a hippie roaming the country in a battered camper van, taking part in protests, like one at RAF Molesworth demonstrating against U.S. cruise missiles.
Then one evening in 1991, he was lying on top of a hill outside Stroud admiring a windmill he’d built on the roof of his trailer to power his life, and everything changed.
‘I had this epiphany. I realized I could spend another ten years living this low-impact life, or I could make a difference.’ He chose the latter. And, armed with a loan from a Green Bank, he set up his own electricity supply business.
His timing — dovetailing neatly with the opening up of the electricity grid and the introduction of government subsidies — couldn’t have been better.
Today, Ecotricity employs more than 700 people and has a turnover of half a billion. Though he insists, several times, that he has no interest in money and is overdrawn every month.
People say I’m worth £100 million but I feel I am the company’s custodian,’ he says. ‘I own one house [actually a £3 million castellated 18th-century folly set in nine acres, with magnificent hilltop views] with an interest-only mortgage, so the bank owns that, in effect. I don’t have any investments or pension funds.’
Last month, he says, he baulked at buying a fifth motorbike — an electric Harley-Davidson — because it cost £15,000.
‘It was far too much,’ he says. ‘So we’re making one instead.’
Just as, when he wanted an electric car a few years ago and found there was nothing he fancied on the market, he spent £750,000 building his own.
Undated handout photo issued by Borkowski of Sky Diamonds, the world’s first zero-impact diamonds which are created using a sky mining facility to extract carbon from the atmosphere
And when he realised there was nowhere to plug it in, he started work on an electric highway network of fast-charging stations —which he and Musk fell out over. He’s clearly a clever man — he tells me his IQ is well into the 150s but he doesn’t have a TV, rarely listens to the radio and has never had a mobile phone.
He used to read The Guardian newspaper cover to cover, but became too fixated. ‘If I started reading a page, I had to read the whole page — every single word.’
A year ago, he discovered he was on the autism spectrum.
‘A lot of things fell into place — especially for the people that know me really well. My wife, particularly!’ But Dale himself wasn’t happy.
‘I felt I was being pigeon-holed and that’s not me!’ he says.
But when it came to writing his memoir — out shortly — his intense focus came in handy.
‘I wrote it in four weeks flat — just bashed it out,’ he says.
Which left plenty of head space for his myriad other ‘mission’ projects — a vegan school meals project, a sustainability sports charity, a £100 million new eco stadium for his football team and not forgetting a possible foray into politics.
‘They need someone with a bit of conviction, a bit of passion — a bit of life experience,’ he says.
But for now, back to the diamonds, where his ambition is immense.
‘I want to challenge the industry, to disrupt it, to call time on it. I’ve been waiting years to break it.’
Blimey! Presumably De Beers is quaking. ‘I’ve heard nothing from De Beers,’ he says. ‘But I have been contacted by a lot of jewellers!’