A superhard material is a material with a hardness value exceeding 40 gigapascals (GPa) when measured by the Vickers hardness test. They are virtually incompressible solids with high electron density and high bond covalency. As a result of their unique properties, these materials are of great interest in many industrial areas including, but not limited to, abrasives, polishing and cutting tools, disc brakes, and wear-resistant and protective coatings.
Diamond is the hardest known material to date, with a Vickers hardness in the range of 70–150 GPa. Diamond demonstrates both high thermal conductivity and electrically insulating properties, and much attention has been put into finding practical applications of this material. However, diamond has several limitations for mass industrial application, including its high cost and oxidation at temperatures above 800 °C. In addition, diamond dissolves in iron and forms iron carbides at high temperatures and therefore is inefficient in cutting ferrous materials including steel. Therefore, recent research of superhard materials has been focusing on compounds which would be thermally and chemically more stable than pure diamond.
The search for new superhard materials has generally taken two paths. In the first approach, researchers emulate the short, directional covalent carbon bonds of diamond by combining light elements like boron, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen. This approach became popular in the late 1980s with the exploration of C3N4 and B-C-N ternary compounds. The second approach towards designing superhard materials incorporates these lighter elements (B, C, N, and O), but also introduces transition metals with high valence electron densities to provide high incompressibility. In this way, metals with high bulk moduli but low hardness are coordinated with small covalent-forming atoms to produce superhard materials. Tungsten carbide is an industrially-relevant manifestation of this approach, although it is not considered superhard. Alternatively, borides combined with transition metals have become a rich area of superhard research and have led to discoveries such as ReB2, OsB2, and WB4.
Superhard materials can be generally classified into two categories: intrinsic compounds and extrinsic compounds. The intrinsic group includes diamond, cubic boron nitride (c-BN), carbon nitrides, and ternary compounds such as B-N-C, which possess an innate hardness. Conversely, extrinsic materials are those that have superhardness and other mechanical properties that are determined by their microstructure rather than composition. An example of extrinsic superhard material is nanocrystalline diamond known as aggregated diamond nanorods.