Educator How-To: Crystals, Geometry and Chemistry


January 27, 2015
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Math is beautiful and inescapable. Especially in nature, patterns and equations just keep showing up.  The path of an orbiting planet, the growth of a nautilus, arrangements of leaves on a stem, the efficient packing of a honeycomb; we can find rules and algorithms and make predictions from them.

Crystals, with their obediently repeating structure, are an elegant manifestation of the ‘rules.’  To be a crystal, your building blocks (atoms, molecules, or ions) must follow patterns over and over and over and over and over.  Atoms, being predictable, simply do what their chemical properties and the conditions (temperature, pressure, etc.) indicate.  So what exactly does it take to go from a mess of elements and compounds to this example from the Crystals of India exhibit at HMNS Sugar Land?

If you’ve ever tried making rock candy from sugar water or ornaments from borax solution, then you have some idea what it entails: something dissolved that is capable of making crystals has to slowly come out of solution – usually the longer you give it, the bigger it can grow and the slower it grows, the more perfect the crystals.

Freezing water into ice also gives you crystals; they just don’t stick around and let you handle them conveniently at room temperature. Water and solutions in water aren’t the only way to get crystals; molten rock cooling (slowly) can also give crystals, but that’s a little tricky for home experimentation.

So time is your friend for crystal growth, pressure is a factor, and it needs to be easier for atoms to attach to the forming crystal than to stay in solution.  Having a solution that is saturated or supersaturated so it can barely hold all of the dissolved material helps. It also helps to have places for the crystals to start forming; a tiny ‘seed’ crystal or sometimes even just a rough spot on a surface can provide the nucleation sites to kick off crystal growth. Are there other ways crystals and the things we consider ‘gems’ can form? Yes!

For those of us with shorter attention spans, a cool way so see the process is with crystallizing hand warmers – a pouch holds a saturated solution of sodium acetate. When you flex a metal disk inside the pouch, you kick off a chain of crystallization and end up with solid material (and released heat energy).  Because the process is so fast in the hand warmer, the individual crystals are very small and jumbled up (polycrystalline); oriented in all different directions, and as a mass they are opaque (light is refracting all over the place) and relatively dull rather than shiny and smooth as slower-forming large crystal faces can be.  The structure of most metals is also polycrystalline, and things like plastic and glass (even the kinds misleadingly labeled “crystal!”) are amorphous.

The external crystal shapes we see are related to the internal structure – there are a lot of different ways atoms can pack together.

Practically, there will always be some disruption in a crystal structure, no matter how perfect it may appear, which allows for some very cool effects – crystals “twinning,” impurities that alter the color; the reason ruby and sapphire (both corundum crystals) appear different.

Crystals aren’t always pretty! Sometimes we want to prevent crystallization to avoid things like kidney stones, but crystals are useful for all kinds of things; optical equipment and lasers, X-ray crystallography to figure out structures of proteins (and once upon a time, DNA), and silicon chips used in electronic devices. 

Whether you prefer your crystals practical or decorative, they are amazing!

Can’t get enough crystals? Check out the Crystals of India exhibit at HMNS Sugar Land (free for members!)

Carolyn L
Authored By Carolyn L Leap

Carolyn coordinates the Science on Stage outreach program at HMNS and will blog about science toys and experiments, logic puzzles, and whatever else seems interesting at the time.

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