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Intelligent Machines

The Science of a Sparkling Shave

A German company hopes a synthetic diamond material, engineered at the nanoscale, becomes a shaver’s best friend.

For the last few months, Andre Flöter has been shaving with a diamond-tipped razor blade.

Cutting edge: These photos show the stages in which GFD, a German company, takes a carbide blade, adds a coating of nanocrystalline diamond, and sharpens it with ions.

He’s not some nouveau riche flaunting the newest kind of bling. He’s the founder of GFD, a German company that for the last seven years has been selling blades that are coated with synthetic diamond and used for industrial purposes–such as medical scalpels and instruments that cut plastic sheeting. Now Flöter hopes to use the exceptional hardness of diamond to crack the multibillion-dollar market for consumer razor blades.

Seated in a café in Mannheim, Germany, a couple hours north of his office in Ulm (Albert Einstein’s birthplace), Flöter whips out a plastic-handled razor that looks like ones you have at home. But inserted into this one is a prototype of GFD’s diamond-tipped blades.

He demonstrates against his own arm hair how it cuts as smoothly as a regular razor. He hands it to me so I can try, and it feels like my regular razor. But one major difference, Flöter says, is that his diamond-tipped blade should last several years rather than a few weeks.

The body of the blade is made of tungsten carbide, a dense metal compound, and seems just like a typical commercial razor blade, except it is a little heavier and has a darker metallic color. The coating of synthetic diamond–carbon manipulated at the nanoscale–in the tip doesn’t make it look shiny at all.

Flöter won’t reveal details of how GFD creates a film of synthetic diamond. He’s more forthcoming about how the company’s blades, once made, are sharpened. The engineers take dozens of blades and stand them upright in a vacuum chamber. Then they hit the blades with ions of oxygen or chlorine gas that has been excited to a plasma state with an electric field. The process is akin to using extremely fine-grained sandpaper as a sharpener.

The resulting blade has a “radius of curvature”–the tiny edge of the blade, which is actually rounded at the microscopic level – of about 50 nanometers. That’s about 10 times sharper than the blades GFD sells for plastic sheet cutting. Flöter gives me his razor again: Not only does it cut when I press against my skin, as I would during a normal shave, but even just grazing the tips of my arm hair, the blade cuts with no effort at all.

To be sure, blades made this way would make razors much more expensive. But because they could last much longer than a cheap disposable razor, the blades could be cost-effective in the long run, perhaps paying for themselves in about a year, GFD hopes. First, though, Flöter needs a blade manufacturer to partner with his seven-employee company. If all goes well, his blades could hit the market within two or three years, he says.

It wouldn’t be the first time diamond blades were marketed; Schick used to sell a razor it called the FX Diamond. But it didn’t cost much more than standard blades; Flöter says Schick didn’t produce a substantially harder or longer-lasting blade because it didn’t use a pure diamond coating and didn’t sharpen it the way GFD does. A Schick spokeswoman declined to comment on GFD’s technology.

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