A crystal or crystalline solid is a solid material whose constituents, such as atoms, molecules or ions, are arranged in a highly ordered microscopic structure, forming a crystal lattice that extends in all directions. In addition, macroscopic single crystals are usually identifiable by their geometrical shape, consisting of flat faces with specific, characteristic orientations.
The scientific study of crystals and crystal formation is known as crystallography. The process of crystal formation via mechanisms of crystal growth is called crystallization or solidification. The word crystal is derived from the Ancient Greek word κρύσταλλος (krustallos), meaning both “ice” and “rock crystal”, from κρύος (kruos), “icy cold, frost”.
Most minerals occur naturally as crystals. Every crystal has an orderly, internal pattern of atoms, with a distinctive way of locking new atoms into that pattern to repeat it again and again. The shape of the resulting crystaL-such as a cube (like salt) or a six-sided form (like a snowflake)-mirrors the internal arrangement of the atoms. As crystals grow, differences in temperature and chemical composition cause fascinating variations. But students will rarely find in their backyard the perfectly shaped mineral crystals that they see in a museum. This is because in order to readily show their geometric form and flat surfaces, crystals need ideal growing conditions and room to grow. When many different crystals grow near each other, they mesh together to form a conglomerated mass. This is the case with most rocks, such as granite mentioned above, which is made up of many tiny mineral crystals. The museum-quality specimens shown in the images here grew in roomy environments that allowed the geometric shapes to form uninhibited.
The internal arrangement of atoms determines all the minerals’ chemical and physical properties, including color. Light interacts with different atoms to create different colors. Many minerals are colorless in their pure state; however, impurities of the atomic structure cause color. Quartz, for example, is normally colorless, but occurs in a range of colors from pink to brown to the deep purple of amethyst, depending on the number and type of impurities in its structure. In its colorless state, quartz resembles ice. In fact, the root for crystal comes from the Greek word krystallos-ice-because the ancient Greeks believed clear quartz was ice frozen so hard it could not melt.
Scientists typically describe crystals as “growing,” even though they are not alive. In subterranean gardens, they branch and bristle as trillions of atoms connect in regular three-dimensional patterns. Each crystal starts small and grows as more atoms are added. Many grow from water rich in dissolved minerals, but they also grow from melted rock and even vapor. Under the influence of different temperatures and pressures, atoms combine in an amazing array of crystal shapes. It is this variety and perfection of form and symmetry that has long drawn scientists to the study of minerals. Symmetry is a regular, repeated pattern of component parts. Symmetry is everywhere in nature-the paired wings of a butterfly, the whorls and petals in a sunflower, the pattern of a snowflake, the legs of a spider-and minerals are no exception. In crystals, these repeated patterns occur within the basic atomic structure and reflect the pattern of faces of the crystal. You often can see the characteristic symmetry of a mineral crystal with the naked eye, but if the crystal is tiny, then you may need to look at it with a magnifying glass or microscope (as will be demonstrated in Lesson Plan 2). Recognizing symmetrical patterns in crystals may be difficult at first, but experience helps: the more specimens you look at, the more symmetry-and crystals-you will recognize. However, some specimens do not have well-formed crystals and are difficult even for experts to classify.
The scientific definition of a “crystal” is based on the microscopic arrangement of atoms inside it, called the crystal structure. A crystal is a solid where the atoms form a periodic arrangement.
Not all solids are crystals. For example, when liquid water starts freezing, the phase change begins with small ice crystals that grow until they fuse, forming a polycrystalline structure. In the final block of ice, each of the small crystals (called “crystallites” or “grains”) is a true crystal with a periodic arrangement of atoms, but the whole polycrystal does not have a periodic arrangement of atoms, because the periodic pattern is broken at the grain boundaries. Most macroscopic inorganic solids are polycrystalline, including almost all metals, ceramics, ice, rocks, etc. Solids that are neither crystalline nor polycrystalline, such as glass, are called amorphous solids, also called glassy, vitreous, or noncrystalline. These have no periodic order, even microscopically. There are distinct differences between crystalline solids and amorphous solids: most notably, the process of forming a glass does not release the latent heat of fusion, but forming a crystal does.
A crystal structure (an arrangement of atoms in a crystal) is characterized by its unit cell, a small imaginary box containing one or more atoms in a specific spatial arrangement. The unit cells are stacked in three-dimensional space to form the crystal.
The symmetry of a crystal is constrained by the requirement that the unit cells stack perfectly with no gaps. There are 219 possible crystal symmetries, called crystallographic space groups. These are grouped into 7 crystal systems, such as cubic crystal system (where the crystals may form cubes or rectangular boxes, such as halite shown at right) or hexagonal crystal system (where the crystals may form hexagons, such as ordinary water ice).
Crystal faces and shapes
Crystals are commonly recognized by their shape, consisting of flat faces with sharp angles. These shape characteristics are not necessary for a crystal—a crystal is scientifically defined by its microscopic atomic arrangement, not its macroscopic shape—but the characteristic macroscopic shape is often present and easy to see.
Euhedral crystals are those with obvious, well-formed flat faces. Anhedral crystals do not, usually because the crystal is one grain in a polycrystalline solid.
The flat faces (also called facets) of a euhedral crystal are oriented in a specific way relative to the underlying atomic arrangement of the crystal: They are planes of relatively low Miller index. This occurs because some surface orientations are more stable than others (lower surface energy). As a crystal grows, new atoms attach easily to the rougher and less stable parts of the surface, but less easily to the flat, stable surfaces. Therefore, the flat surfaces tend to grow larger and smoother, until the whole crystal surface consists of these plane surfaces. (See diagram on right.)
One of the oldest techniques in the science of crystallography consists of measuring the three-dimensional orientations of the faces of a crystal, and using them to infer the underlying crystal symmetry.
A crystal’s habit is its visible external shape. This is determined by the crystal structure (which restricts the possible facet orientations), the specific crystal chemistry and bonding (which may favor some facet types over others), and the conditions under which the crystal formed.
Occurrence in nature
By volume and weight, the largest concentrations of crystals in the Earth are part of its solid bedrock. Crystals found in rocks typically range in size from a fraction of a millimetre to several centimetres across, although exceptionally large crystals are occasionally found. As of 1999, the world’s largest known naturally occurring crystal is a crystal of beryl from Malakialina, Madagascar, 18 m (59 ft) long and 3.5 m (11 ft) in diameter, and weighing 380,000 kg (840,000 lb).
Some crystals have formed by magmatic and metamorphic processes, giving origin to large masses of crystalline rock. The vast majority of igneous rocks are formed from molten magma and the degree of crystallization depends primarily on the conditions under which they solidified. Such rocks as granite, which have cooled very slowly and under great pressures, have completely crystallized; but many kinds of lava were poured out at the surface and cooled very rapidly, and in this latter group a small amount of amorphous or glassy matter is common. Other crystalline rocks, the metamorphic rocks such as marbles, mica-schists and quartzites, are recrystallized. This means that they were at first fragmental rocks like limestone, shale and sandstone and have never been in a molten condition nor entirely in solution, but the high temperature and pressure conditions of metamorphism have acted on them by erasing their original structures and inducing recrystallization in the solid state.
Other rock crystals have formed out of precipitation from fluids, commonly water, to form druses or quartz veins. The evaporites such as halite, gypsum and some limestones have been deposited from aqueous solution, mostly owing to evaporation in arid climates.
Water-based ice in the form of snow, sea ice and glaciers is a very common manifestation of crystalline or polycrystalline matter on Earth. A single snowflake is typically a single crystal, while an ice cube is a polycrystal.
Many living organisms are able to produce crystals, for example calcite and aragonite in the case of most molluscs or hydroxylapatite in the case of vertebrates.
Crystallization is the process of forming a crystalline structure from a fluid or from materials dissolved in a fluid. (More rarely, crystals may be deposited directly from gas; see thin-film deposition and epitaxy.)
Crystallization is a complex and extensively-studied field, because depending on the conditions, a single fluid can solidify into many different possible forms. It can form a single crystal, perhaps with various possible phases, stoichiometries, impurities, defects, and habits. Or, it can form a polycrystal, with various possibilities for the size, arrangement, orientation, and phase of its grains. The final form of the solid is determined by the conditions under which the fluid is being solidified, such as the chemistry of the fluid, the ambient pressure, the temperature, and the speed with which all these parameters are changing.
Specific industrial techniques to produce large single crystals (called boules) include the Czochralski process and the Bridgman technique. Other less exotic methods of crystallization may be used, depending on the physical properties of the substance, including hydrothermal synthesis, sublimation, or simply solvent-based crystallization.
Large single crystals can be created by geological processes. For example, selenite crystals in excess of 10 meters are found in the Cave of the Crystals in Naica, Mexico. For more details on geological crystal formation, see above.
Crystals can also be formed by biological processes, see above. Conversely, some organisms have special techniques to prevent crystallization from occurring, such as antifreeze proteins.
Defects, impurities, and twinning
An ideal crystal has every atom in a perfect, exactly repeating pattern. However, in reality, most crystalline materials have a variety of crystallographic defects, places where the crystal’s pattern is interrupted. The types and structures of these defects may have a profound effect on the properties of the materials.
A few examples of crystallographic defects include vacancy defects (an empty space where an atom should fit), interstitial defects (an extra atom squeezed in where it does not fit), and dislocations (see figure at right). Dislocations are especially important in materials science, because they help determine the mechanical strength of materials.
Another common type of crystallographic defect is an impurity, meaning that the “wrong” type of atom is present in a crystal. For example, a perfect crystal of diamond would only contain carbon atoms, but a real crystal might perhaps contain a few boron atoms as well. These boron impurities change the diamond’s color to slightly blue. Likewise, the only difference between ruby and sapphire is the type of impurities present in a corundum crystal.
In semiconductors, a special type of impurity, called a dopant, drastically changes the crystal’s electrical properties. Semiconductor devices, such as transistors, are made possible largely by putting different semiconductor dopants into different places, in specific patterns.
Twinning is a phenomenon somewhere between a crystallographic defect and a grain boundary. Like a grain boundary, a twin boundary has different crystal orientations on its two sides. But unlike a grain boundary, the orientations are not random, but related in a specific, mirror-image way.
Mosaicity is a spread of crystal plane orientations. A mosaic crystal is supposed to consist of smaller crystalline units that are somewhat misaligned with respect to each other.
A quasicrystal consists of arrays of atoms that are ordered but not strictly periodic. They have many attributes in common with ordinary crystals, such as displaying a discrete pattern in x-ray diffraction, and the ability to form shapes with smooth, flat faces.
Quasicrystals are most famous for their ability to show five-fold symmetry, which is impossible for an ordinary periodic crystal (see crystallographic restriction theorem).
The International Union of Crystallography has redefined the term “crystal” to include both ordinary periodic crystals and quasicrystals (“any solid having an essentially discrete diffraction diagram”).
Quasicrystals, first discovered in 1982, are quite rare in practice. Only about 100 solids are known to form quasicrystals, compared to about 400,000 periodic crystals measured to date. The 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Dan Shechtman for the discovery of quasicrystals.
Crystallography is the science of measuring the crystal structure (in other words, the atomic arrangement) of a crystal. One widely used crystallography technique is X-ray diffraction. Large numbers of known crystal structures are stored in crystallographic databases.