The recent development in the field of superhard materials with Vickers hardness of ⩾40 GPa is reviewed. Two basic approaches are outlined including the intrinsic superhard materials, such as diamond, cubic boron nitride, C3N4, carbonitrides, etc. and extrinsic, nanostructured materials for which superhardness is achieved by an appropriate design of their microstructure. The theoretically predicted high hardness of C3N4 has not been experimentally documented so far. Ceramics made of cubic boron nitride prepared at high pressure and temperature find many applications whereas thin films prepared by activated deposition from the gas phase are still in the stage of fundamental development. The greatest progress has been achieved in the field of nanostructured materials including superlattices and nanocomposites where superhardness of ⩾50 GPa was reported for several systems. More recently, nc-TiN/SiNx nanocomposites with hardness of 105 GPa were prepared, reaching the hardness of diamond. The principles of design for these materials are summarized and some unresolved questions outlined.

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