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Crystallography (from the Greek words crystallon = solid and graphein = write) is the experimental science of determining the arrangement of atoms in solids. In older usage, it is the scientific study of crystals.
Crystallographic methods all rely on the analysis of the diffraction patterns that emerge from a sample that is targeted by a beam of some type. The beam is not always electromagnetic radiation, even though X-rays are the most common choice. For some purposes electrons or neutrons are used, which is possible due to the wave properties of particles that are described by quantum mechanics. Crystallographers often explicitly state the type of illumination used when referring to a method, as with the terms X-ray diffraction, neutron diffraction and electron diffraction. X-rays are useful for visualizing the electron clouds around atoms, whereas neutron diffraction methods will reveal the atomic nuclei. Thus far, electron diffraction has not been widely used. Crystallography by itself typically implies X-rays.
In many cases, an image of a microscopic object is generated by focusing the rays of the visible spectrum using a lens as in light microscopy. However, because the wavelength of visible light is long compared to atomic bond lengths and atoms themselves, it is necessary to use radiation with shorter wavelengths, such as X-rays. Employing shorter wavelengths implies abandoning microscopy and true imaging, however, because there exists no material from which a lens capable of focusing this type of radiation can be created. (That said, scientists have had some success focusing X-rays with microscopic Fresnel zone plates made from gold). Generally, in diffraction-based imaging, the only wavelengths used are those that are too short to be focused. This difficulty is the reason that crystals must be used.
Because of their highly ordered and repetitive structure, crystals are an ideal material for analyzing the structure of solids. To use X-ray diffraction as an example, a single X-ray photon diffracting off of one electron cloud will not generate a strong enough signal for the equipment to detect. However, many X-rays diffracting off many electron clouds in approximately the same relative position and orientation throughout the crystal will result in constructive interference and hence a detectable signal.
Some materials studied using crystallography, DNA for example, do not occur naturally as crystals. Typically, such molecules are placed in solution and allowed to crystallize over days, weeks, or months through vapor diffusion. A drop of solution containing the molecule, buffer, and precipitants is sealed in a container with a reservoir containing a hygroscopic solution. Water in the drop diffuses to the reservoir, slowly increasing the concentration and allowing a crystal to form. If the concentration were to rise more quickly, the molecule would simiply precipitate out of solution, resulting in disorderly granules rather than an orderly and hence usable crystal.
Once a crystal is obtained, data can be collected using a beam of radiation. Although many universities that engage in crystallographic research have their own X-ray producing equipment, Synchrotrons are often used as X-ray sources, because of the purer and more complete patterns such sources can generate. Synchrotron sources also have a much higher intensity of x-ray beams, so data collection takes a fraction of the time normally necessary at weaker sources.
Producing an image from a diffraction pattern requires sophisticated mathematics and often an iterative process of modelling and refinement. In this process, the mathematically predicted diffraction patterns of an hypothesized or "model" structure are compared to the actual pattern generated by the crystalline sample. Ideally, researchers make several initial guesses, which through refinement all converge on the same answer. Models are refined until their predicted patterns match to as great a degree as can be achieved without radical revision of the model. This is a painstaking process, made much easier today by computers.
The mathematical methods for the analysis of diffraction data only apply to patterns, which in turn result only when waves diffract from orderly arrays. Hence crystallography applies for the most part only to crystals, or to molecules which can be coaxed to crystalize for the sake of measurement. In spite of this, a certain amount of molecular information can be deduced from the patterns that are generated by fibers and powders, which while not as perfect as a solid crystal, may exhibit a degree of order. This level of order can be sufficient to deduce the structure of simple molecules, or to determine the coarse features of more complicated molecules (the double-helical structure of DNA, for example, was deduced from an X-ray diffraction pattern that had been generated by a fibrous sample).
Crystallography is a tool that is often employed by materials scientists. In single crystals, the effects of the crystalline arrangement of atoms is often easy to see macroscopically, because the natural shapes of crystals reflect the atomic structure. In addition, physical properties are often controlled by crystalline defects. The understanding of crystal structures is an important prerequisite for understanding crystallographic defects.
A number of other physical properties are linked to crystallography. For example, the minerals in clay form small, flat, platelike structures. Clay can be easily deformed because the platelike particles can slip along each other in the plane of the plates, yet remain strongly connected in the direction perpendicular to the plates.
In another example, iron transforms from a body-centered cubic (bcc) structure to a face-centered cubic (fcc) structure called austenite when it is heated. The fcc structure is a close-packed structure, and the bcc structure is not, which explains why the volume of the iron decreases when this transformation occurs.
Crystallography is useful in phase identification: That is, when performing some kind of processing on a material, it is often desired to find out what compounds and what phases are present in the material. Each phase has a characteristic arrangement of atoms. Techniques like X-ray diffraction can be used to identify which patterns are present in the material, and thus which compounds are present (note: the determination of the "phases" within a material should not be confused with the more general problem of "phase determination," which refers to the phase of waves as they diffract from planes within a crystal, and which is a necessary step in the interpretation of complicated diffraction patterns).
Crystallography covers the enumeration of the symmetry patterns which can be formed by atoms in a crystal and for this reason has a relation to group theory and geometry. See Symmetry group.
X-ray crystallography is the primary method for determining the molecular conformations of biological macromolecules, particularly protein and nucleic acids such as DNA and RNA. In fact, the double-helical structure of DNA was deduced from crystallographic data. The first crystal structure of a macromolecule was solved in 1958 (Kendrew, J.C. et al. (1958) A three-dimensional model of the myoglobin molecule obtained by X-ray analysis. Nature 181, 662-666.). The Protein Data Bank (PDB) at http://www.rcsb.org is a freely accessible repository for the structures of proteins and other biological macromolecules. Rasmol can be used to visualize biological molecular structurs.
- Crystal optics
- crystallographic group
- John Craig Wiley
- symmetry group
- X-ray crystallography
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