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With a Mohs hardness between 9 and 10, boron carbide (B4C) is one of the hardest synthetic substances known to man. It is twice as hard as titanium dioxide and four times as hard as silicon dioxide. It was first synthesised in 1899 by Henri Moissan using an electric arc furnace process. It is typically produced by reacting boron trioxide with either carbon or magnesium in the presence of carbon. The resulting molten material is subsequently sintered in an electric arc furnace or a hot pressed press.
The atomic structure of B4C consists of boron and carbon atoms arranged in a cubic close-packed lattice. The boron atoms are held together by strong covalent bonds and the carbon atoms are linked by weaker van der Waals forces. The crystalline structure of the material gives it a high melting point, high strength, low density and good chemical inertness. It also has a large thermal neutron cross section and is used as a control rod material in nuclear reactors.
Boron Carbide has a very low coefficient of expansion and an extremely high fracture toughness which makes it a good choice for use in applications such as cutting, crushing and grinding metals. It is one of the hardest available materials in powdered form and is used as an abrasive material for shaping hard metals and other hard materials such as ceramics. It is also used in abrasive Grit Blasting Nozzles and as a hard surface coating for the finishing of steel and other materials. Boron Carbide is a dangerous substance and should be handled in a controlled environment with appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Inhalation of the powder may cause irritation of the eyes, nose and throat. Should this occur, the victim should flush the eyes with lukewarm water and seek medical attention.