Tag Archives: crystal

Refrigerator handles.

Plastic crystals identified as a solid, safe alternative to our refrigerants

With refrigeration sucking up about one-fifth of all the energy we produce, the pressure is on to find an alternative. Luckily, a new paper says pressure is exactly what we need. Pressure and plastic crystals.

Refrigerator handles.

Image via Pixabay.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge and the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya report that plastic neopentylglycol (NPG) crystals can pose a real alternative to the gas coolants of today. When placed under pressure, these crystals show “extremely large thermal changes,” the authors explain.

Cool under pressure

“Refrigerators and air conditioners based on HFCs and HCs [hydrofluorocarbons and hydrocarbons] are also relatively inefficient,” says Dr Xavier Moya from the University of Cambridge, who led the research.

“That’s important because refrigeration and air conditioning currently devour a fifth of the energy produced worldwide, and demand for cooling is only going up.”

HFCs and HCs are currently used in the vast majority of refrigerators and air conditioners. They’re toxic and flammable, and become powerful greenhouse gases when they leak. HCs also deplete the ozone layer. They’re not that good at being coolants, but they are the best we currently have available on a commercial scale.

Moya, alongside Professor Josep Lluís Tamarit from the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, is one of the researchers working on finding a replacement. They report that plastic crystals of NPG could fit that role. The material is widely available and inexpensive right now, and is used in paints, polyesters, lubricants and various other chemical products. It also functions at normal room temperatures and conditions.

Conventional cooling technologies use fluids to ‘carry’ heat around. To do so, this fluid is turned into gas then back into a liquid form in successive cycles. It absorbs energy as it expands (like water does when it boils) and releases then it as it compresses. Most cooling devices today work using fluids such as HFCs and HCs because they eat up a lot of energy as they expand.

The solid alternative proposed by the team cools down through changes in its microscopic structure — caused by a magnetic field, an electric field, or through mechanical force. It’s a well-documented reaction, but fluid coolants outperformed them in terms of efficiency, so they aren’t widely used. NPG plastic crystals, however, are on par with these fluids.

Neopentyl glycol.

A neopentyl glycol molecule in 3D. Looks plump.
Image via Wikimedia.

What sets it apart from the rest is the shape of its molecules. They are nearly spherical and only establish weak interactions with each other. This makes it behave a bit like, but not exactly as, a liquid. The term “plastic” in their name refers to them being malleable, not to the material plastic. Because its molecules can be moved around much more freely than that of previous solid coolants, compressing NPG generates “colossal barocaloric [relating to pressure and temperature] effects,” the team writes.

“Here we show that plastic crystals of neopentylglycol display extremely large pressure-driven thermal changes near room temperature due to molecular reconfiguration,” the team writes, “that these changes outperform those observed in any type of caloric material, and that these changes are comparable with those exploited commercially in hydrofluorocarbons.”

“Our discovery of […] should bring barocaloric materials to the forefront of research and development in order to achieve safe environmentally friendly cooling without compromising performance,” they conclude.

Moya is now working with Cambridge Enterprise, the commercialization arm of the University of Cambridge, to bring this technology to market.

The paper “Colossal barocaloric effects near room temperature in plastic crystals of neopentylglycol” has been published in the journal Nature Communications.

Researchers have found a pattern for prime numbers — and it resembles something from nature

The way these numbers are distributed resembles a pattern scientists have observed in atom distribution in crystals.

Prime numbers, plotted as dots — the so-called sieve of Eratosthenes.

A prime conundrum

Prime numbers are weird, and they’ve fascinated researchers since ancient times. They’re integers that can only be divided by 1 and themselves, which means that in a way, they are the building blocks of mathematics — since they can be used to divide all other numbers. But their distribution seems really random. Buckle up, we’re in for a strange ride.

Just think about it: the first prime number is 2, and it’s the only even number since it divides all other even numbers. The next prime numbers are 3, 5, and 7, which seem to make a pattern, but that’s only a deceptive appearance. The next ones are 11, 13, and 17. After that, you have 19, 23, and 29, and it gets weirder and weirder the more you go towards bigger numbers. By all accounts, they’re simply random.

As British mathematician, R.C. Vaughan eloquently pointed out: “It is evident that the primes are randomly distributed but, unfortunately, we do not know what ‘random’ means.”

This is not without use, especially as much of modern cryptography employs prime numbers to generate randomness — something which is particularly problematic for computers and algorithms. As Motherboard’s Liv Boree points out, the widely used RSA encryption algorithm relies on the fact that any number can be obtained by multiplying prime numbers, but it’s extremely difficult to take a very large number and figure out which primes were multiplied together to make that large number. In number theory, every integer greater than 1 either is a prime number itself or can be represented as the product of prime numbers — and this representation is unique. Sounds complicated? Well, we did say it’s a strange ride, but we’ll get there.

To make matters even stranger, some of the most intriguing unsolved mathematical problems involve prime numbers. For instance, the famous Goldbach Conjecture states that every even integer bigger than 2 is the sum of two prime numbers. This has been tested up to 400,000,000,000,000, but remains essentially unproven, being one of the oldest unsolved problems in number theory and in all of mathematics.

Numbers and crystals

The electron diffraction pattern of an inorganic crystal, a tantalum oxide.

Before we can get back to the prime numbers, we need to make a small detour. Chemists, physicists, and geologists sometimes study crystals in great detail, firing X-rays at them and observing the different resulting patterns. These patterns are a result of the crystal’s atomic lattice, or how symmetrically the atoms are arranged.

While crystals have an ordered and repetitive atomic structure which results in an orderly pattern, a liquid, whose atoms are moving all over the place, will produce jumbled results and fail to produce a pattern. Something similar, but not quite identical, happens to rare materials called quasicrystals — materials which have an ordered, but not periodic structure.

Quasicrystals resemble solids in that they form a pattern of periodic bright spots known as “Bragg peaks” as the rays constructively interfere with each other over fixed intervals, but they also resemble liquids in that the pattern isn’t repeatable.

Realizing this, theoretical chemist and Princeton professor Salvatore Torquato had a hunch: what if prime numbers and these quasicrystal patterns had something in common? It seemed like a long shot, but together with his student Ge Zhang and number theorist Matthew de-Courcy-Ireland, Torquato computationally represented the primes as a string of atoms and light that scatters off of them. The results, published in three papers (1, 2, 3) show that this was indeed the case: quasicrystals produce scatter patterns that resemble the distribution of prime numbers. This is “unlike anything we’ve seen before” and implies that prime numbers  “are a completely new category of structures” when considered as a physical system, Torquato told Quanta Magazine.

The team reports that this also creates a never-before-seen fractal pattern, which only appears when the number line is sufficiently long — over shorter stretches, the pattern fails to emerge.

While the findings aren’t such a big deal for number theory (as most of the mathematics has already been described in a number of forms), it offers a unique physical perspective into a mathematical phenomenon — and a tantalizing one at that. The intersection of abstract math and concrete physics is always exciting and has ramifications that aren’t always clear. For now, this could be useful in the study of non-repeating patterns and scattering theory.

Perhaps lastly, this is just a beautiful depiction of mathematics.

“What’s beautiful about this is it gives us a crystallographer’s view of what the primes look like,” said Henry Cohn, a mathematician at Microsoft Research New England and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

This fungus senses gravity using a gene it borrowed from bacteria

If you zoom in on it, the pin mold fungus Phycomyces blakesleeanus looks like a ghastly pine forest with its thin, elongated bodies reaching upwards. But how does the fungus know which way is up? According to a new study, it does so via a bacteria gene that it acquired and tweaked in order to create gravity-sensing crystals. 

Phycomyces fruiting bodies. Each stalk is a single cell that elongates to form a structure 1-3 cm tall, with a spore-containing sphere at its tip. The spores accumulate melanin as they mature, explaining the black color. Inset: An OCTIN crystal from Phycomyces blakesleeanus; the crystal is about 5 microns across, dwarfing typical bacteria (1-2 microns in length) from which the OCTIN gene is likely to have been acquired.

Most people would consider fungi pretty dull — after all, all they do is grow, spread their spores and then grow some more. However, fungi have much more going for them than it initially appears.

How do you know which way is up (bonus points if you’ve read or seen Ender’s Game)? For us, as humans, the question almost doesn’t make any sense. Without going too much into the biomechanics of how we sense which way is up and which way is down, suffice to say that all animals have at least some idea of up and down. But plants and fungi grow upwards, so they, too, have developed mechanisms that aid them.

Researchers have known for quite a while that the pin mold fungus has octahedral protein crystals that, when placed in fluid-filled chambers (vacuoles), detect gravity. However, it was unclear exactly when and how they developed this ability. In order to clear this up, biologists purified the crystals and identified a protein which they named OCTIN. They found clear evidence of something called horizontal gene transfer, meaning that the fungus borrowed the ability from bacteria.

Basically, genetic information can be transmitted either vertically (from parents to offspring) or horizontally. Horizontal gene transfer (HGT) occurs when DNA is transferred between unrelated individuals. It typically happens to acquire useful functions, such as resistance to environmental extremes and expanded metabolic capacity. However, in most cases, HGT tends to happen through enzymes that confer these traits, and the original and acquired functions tend to remain closely related to each other.

This time, that’s wasn’t the case.

“We were surprised that OCTIN-related genes are found in bacteria and that all the evidence pointed to horizontal gene transfer from bacteria into the ancestor of Phycomyces,” said the authors. “This was intriguing because estimates of sedimentation show that bacteria are too small to employ gravity sensing structures. This made it clear that we were looking at the emergence of an evolutionary novelty based on how the proteins assembled.”

It’s also remarkable that the fungal OCTIN crystals can dramatically swell and dissolve based on the biochemical environment, which forms or breaks bonds between proteins. This also happens in bacteria, but on a much smaller scale. The overall crystal size was also much larger in the fungus than in the bacteria.

The presence of the OCTIN protein is not the end of the story. Researchers took things one step further and tried to “convince” mammalian cells to make fungal OCTIN, but these cells did not form crystals. Dr. Gregory Jedd, who led the group at the Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory from the National University of Singapore, concluded:

“We are currently searching for these factors with the aim of reconstituting OCTIN crystal formation in the test tube. This will allow us to better understand and manipulate the assembly process and its products. High-order assemblies like those formed by OCTIN are not uncommon in nature. Identifying and studying these types of proteins will not only reveal mechanisms of adaptation and evolution, but can also lead to engineered smart protein assemblies with applications in areas such as drug delivery and immune system modulation.”

Journal Reference: Nguyen TA, Greig J, Khan A, Goh C, Jedd G (2018) Evolutionary novelty in gravity sensing through horizontal gene transfer and high-order protein assembly. PLoS Biol 16(4): e2004920. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2004920

Scientists ‘sew’ atomic lattices seamlessly together

Credit: Park et al.

Credit: Park et al.

Researchers from the United States devised a clever new technique that basically “sews” two patches of different crystals seamlessly together. The interface between the two crystal is so smooth, it’s atom-thin. The findings could lead to a better performing electronics.

“Current electronics technology is based on bulk and thick materials and their heterostructures, we took a completely different approach to generate heterostructures—seamless stitching various thin crystals while maintaining the three-atom thickness throughout. These seamless, atomic fabrics not only exhibit similar functions with the conventional heterostructures but also show unique properties and promise for applications that are not available before,” Saien Xie, a graduate student at the University of Chicago and first author on the paper, told ZME Science.

Joining two or more different materials together can lead to highly desirable electrical properties. These arrangements are called heterojunctions, and have proven themselves as indispensable components in many modern electronics, from solar panels to computer chips. Often, the performance of such materials is predicated on how smooth the interface is between the junctions. The smoother the seam between two materials, the easier electrons flow across it.

Most often, the materials used in heterostructures are composed of crystals whose atoms are arranged in rigid lattices and which may have different spacing. When you combine different crystals, their configuration is never perfect.

In a new study, researchers at the University of Chicago and Cornell stitched together two patches of crystals to create atom-thick junctions. They devised a new technique that grew three-atom-thick crystals in a single session and in a constant environment. Typically, crystals are grown in stages and under very different conditions. “You grow one material first, stop the growth, change the condition, and start it again to grow another material,” said Jiwoong Park, professor of chemistry and lead author of the new study published in Science. 

The resulting single-layer materials are the most perfectly aligned ever grown, say the researchers. Since the transition between the two sewn-together fabric-like lattices is so gentle, there are no holes or other defects at the interface.

“The main challenge was to find the optimum condition under which various atomic crystals can be synthesized with the same high quality. One Aha moment is that when we observed uniform ripples when we looked at the nanometer-scale height profile of the stitched atomic crystals. That was never seen before and was the signature of the seamless stitching of two atomic crystals. At that moment we realized that we had generated truly unique materials,” Xie said.

The performance was tested on a diode. When the two different kinds of material are joined, electronics are able to flow one way through the “fabric”, but not the other. Indeed, the three-atom-thick LEDs started glowing.

LEDs are currently manufactured by stacking them in 3D layers, rather than 2D, and usually on a rigid surface. The new technique devised by the researchers could lead to new kinds of flexible LEDs or atom-thick 2D circuits that can operate both horizontally and laterally. What’s more, stretching and compressing the ‘fabric’ resulted in changes in the optical properties of the crystals due to quantum mechanical effects — a quirk that could prove useful in light sensors and LEDs that change color as they stretch. The method is uniform multi-inch wafer scale; therefore, it could be scaled for production “after a modest amount of work,” according to Xie.

Next, the researchers plant to “explore the unique properties and applications of these “seamless atomic fabrics”, for example, color-tunable, high-efficiency LEDs and strain sensors,” Xie told me.

Scientific reference:  “Coherent, atomically-thin transition-metal dichalcogenide superlattices with engineered strain.” Xie et. al, Science, March 8, 2018.

What Can Quartz Crystals Really Do?

Image in public domain.

Crystals and quartz

Crystals have caught the eye of humans since the dawn of time. Some scientists have even speculated that the origins of life on Earth may trace its origins to crystals. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that these gleaming mineral formations appear frequently in pop culture often as having supernatural powers (even though they don’t). A few examples of this reoccurring theme are the Silmarils in the Lord of the Rings universe and the sunstones in James Gurney’s Dinotopia.

The atoms which make up a crystal lie in a lattice which repeats itself over and over. There are several methods for generating crystals artificially in a lab, with superheating being the most common process. Likewise, in nature, a hot liquid (eg: magma) cools down, and as this happens, the molecules are attracted to each other, bunching up and forming that repeating pattern which leads to crystal formation.

Quartz is one of the most abundant minerals found on the planet. This mineral is known to be transparent or have the hues of white, yellow, pink, green, blue, or even black. It is also the most common form of crystalline silica which has a rather high melting point and can be extremely dangerous if inhaled in its powdered form. This mineral compound is present in the majority of igneous rocks. Some quartzes are considered semiprecious stones. Aside from mere bedazzlement, they have been used in countless industries.

Industrial, not magical uses

If a pressure is applied to the surface of a quartz crystal, it can give off a small electrical charge. This effect is the result of the electrically charged atoms (the ions) dispersing and spreading away from the area to which the pressure is being applied. This can be done in a number of ways, including simply squeezing the crystal. It also dispenses an electric current if a precise cut is made at an angle to the axis.

Since it possesses this property, quartz has been a component of devices such as radios, TV’s, and radar systems. Some quartz crystals are capable of transmitting ultraviolet light better than glass (by the way, quartz sand is used in making glass). Because of this, low-quality quartz is often used for making specific lenses; optical quartz is made exclusively from quartz crystals. Quartz which is somewhat clouded or which is not as transparent as the stuff used for optics is frequently incorporated into lab instrumentation.

Scientists have employed quartz for many things, and they have considered its role in the Earth sciences a crucial one. Some have stated it directly brings about the reaction which forms mountains and causes earthquakes! It continues to be used in association with modern technology, and it likely will lead us to more discoveries in the future.

Scientists found lollipop-shaped ice crystals in some clouds

A rather unexpected finding might improve our understanding of how clouds form and develop.

Credits: American Geophysical Union.

Clouds filled with lollipop crystals sounds like a drug-induced vision, but it’s actually what researchers found after analyzing more than 5 million images taken during a 2009 flight across England.

“Natural processes can create objects of real beauty,” said Jonathan Crosier, a senior research fellow who studies clouds at the University of Manchester, and one of the scientists involved in the work. “We instantly started asking ourselves questions about how they form.”

Crosier and his colleagues were looking for things that would help them learn more about the precipitations and the lifetime of clouds. They were quite surprised to see numerous crystals which looked like lollipops — a spherical part on top of a “stick.” It wasn’t the first time these crystals were observed, but it was the first time they were observed in such a large number, enough to indicate that they weren’t some kind of accident.

In order to understand them, we first have to understand that some clouds exist in a mixed-phase — they contain both solid ice and liquid super-cooled water (below freezing temperature, but still liquid). These clouds exist in a very delicate balance, Crosier explains.

“Too much ice and the ice can consume the liquid water, which can lead to precipitation and the dissipation of the cloud,” he said. “Too little, and the ice will fall out, leaving behind a highly reflective super-cooled liquid cloud, which can persist for a long time, whilst generating virtually no precipitation.”

The formation of the ice lollipops happens in this type of cloud. Whenever supercooled water touches ice, it turns into ice itself. So what happens sometimes is that a warm updraft picks up these droplets of supercooled water, elongates them, and crashes them with ice crystals, causing them to freeze. So you end up with ice needles. Occasionally, these needles might break off, fall down, connect with other, unmoved and round droplets, causing these to freeze as well — creating the lollipop shape.

The ice-lollies tend to be between 0.25 mm and 1.5mm in length. They fall to the ground at around 3.6 kilometers per hour and require very specific conditions to form. Also,

“Since they were found at an altitude of around 4 kilometers, it would take just over an hour for them to reach the surface if they remain unchanged,” Crosier said. “However, when the air temperature increases above zero Celsius, then the lolly will melt and form a small rain drop. Even if the temperature profile of the atmosphere is negative — below zero Celcius — at all layers, ice-lollies might not reach the ground in their original shape, or be deformed due to other processes occurring in the clouds,” he said. And, if temperatures stay below zero Celsius, but humidity drops below 100 percent, “then the particles will start to sublimate and could vanish without a trace.”

If all this seems a bit weird, researchers also created this very cute graphic that explains things.

Credits: JoAnna Wendel, American Geophysical Union.

Journal Reference: S. Ch. Keppas, J. Crosier, T. W. Choularton, K. N. Bower — Ice lollies: An ice particle generated in supercooled conveyor belts. DOI: 10.1002/2017GL073441

Astronauts aboard the ISS will grow crystals for drug development

Astronauts will grow crystals in outer space, hoping to improve how the process works back here on Earth and ultimately develop better drugs..

This is a crystal formation within a 50 millimeter loop. Due to the unique environment microgravity provides, crystal formation has been taking place even before humans moved there. Image credits: NASA.

Proteins play a key role in human health, helping the body protect, regulate, and repair itself. However, determining their structure is still a very difficult job in many cases. Most proteins are too small be studied even under a microscope and must be crystallized in order to determine their 3-D structures. It’s only after that their interaction with other compounds can be understood and drug developers can develop a specific drug to affect the protein in the desired way — this is called drug design. Researchers have known for a while that crystals grown in space have fewer imperfections than those on Earth, though it’s not clear why this happens. Therefore, NASA has announced two experiments that will be carried out on the ISS to help improve drug design.

Rate of Growth – LMM Biophysics 1

The leading theory regarding space crystals (which totally sounds like a hardcore drug) is that they are higher quality because they grow slower in microgravity due to a lack of buoyancy-induced convection. Basically, the only way these protein molecules move around and create imperfections is through random diffusion, a process which is much faster in the presence of gravity.

“When you purify proteins to grow crystals, the protein molecules tend to stick to each other in a random fashion,” said Lawrence DeLucas, LMM Biophysics 1 primary investigator. “These protein aggregates can then incorporate into the growing crystals causing defects, disturbing the protein alignment, which then reduces the crystal’s X-ray diffraction quality.”

This is a Lysozyme Crystal formation as seen under a light microscope. Crystals grown in microgravity typically reflect fewer imperfections, making them more ideal for drug development and other research. Image credits: NASA.

But there’s another theory, which has been much less explored, is that a higher level of purity can be achieved in space. Basically, you could create a crystal with would consist entirely of the proteins you want.

The LMM Biophysics 1 will put these two theories to the test to see which one holds true — or who knows, maybe there’s an entirely different explanation we’re missing right now. If we know why the space crystals are purer, maybe we could replicate that process on Earth, leading to improved drug design.

Crystal Types – LMM Biophysics 3

While LMM Biophysics 1 will analyze why crystals from space are better, LMM Biophysics 3 will try to analyze which crystals benefit most from this environment. Research has shown that some crystals are more stubborn, and have the same quality in microgravity and on Earth. The degree of improvement can also be very important for drug design.

“Some proteins are like building blocks,” said Edward Snell, LMM Biophysics 3 primary investigator. “It’s very easy to stack them. Those are the ones that won’t benefit from microgravity. Others are like jelly beans. When you try and build a nice array of them on the ground, they want to roll away and not be ordered. Those are the ones that benefit from microgravity. What we’re trying to do is distinguish the blocks from the jelly beans.”

Ultimately, this will help researchers and commercial companies bring better drugs faster to the market. If someone would ask “Why should we have a space station in the first place?” and you’d say “To design better drugs,” people would probably laugh in your face. But it’s important to note that the benefits and advancements that the ISS provides are far reaching and sometimes hard to predict.

Largest database of crystal surfaces and shapes can help researchers design better materials

Crystal lovers rejoice – researchers have created the largest database of elemental crystal surfaces and shapes to date.

There is an incredibly large variety of crystals in nature. When you add in the ones humans designed themselves, the possibilities are simply staggering. Dubbed Crystallium, this new open-source database can go a long way towards helping researchers design new materials – especially where crystal surface orientation

“This work is an important starting point for studying the material surfaces and interfaces, where many novel properties can be found. We’ve developed a new resource that can be used to better understand surface science and find better materials for surface-driven technologies,” said Shyue Ping Ong, a nanoengineering professor at UC San Diego and senior author of the study.

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. But this database is less about geology and more about material design. Size is not often important when trying to use crystals to design materials but the other geometrical parameters are. For instance, fuel cell performance is significantly influenced by molecules of hydrogen and oxygen reacting on the surface of metal catalysts. The orientation of the building blocks of that surface is key here. Similarly, the interfaces between the electrodes and electrolyte in a rechargeable lithium-ion battery can increase or reduce the battery’s performance. This is where the database steps in – it makes this kind of information much more accessible to everyone.

“Researchers can use this database to figure out which elements or materials are more likely to be viable catalysts for processes like ammonia production or making hydrogen gas from water,” said Richard Tran, a nanoengineering PhD student in Ong’s Materials Virtual Lab and the study’s first author. Tran did this work while he was an undergraduate at UC San Diego.

The surface resistance is particularly important in such cases. Surface energy describes the stability of a surface, it’s basically a measure of the excess energy of atoms on the surface relative to those in the bulk material. The surface resistance is always important for designing nanoparticles and catalysts.

At this point, you might think this is a trivial task. After all, what’s so special in publishing a crystal database?

Well, in the past, researchers have experimentally measured the surface energies elements in their crystal. This is a complex process which traditionally involves melting the crystal, measuring the resulting liquid’s surface tension at the melting temperature, then extrapolating that value back to room temperature – and all this must be done on a perfectly smooth surface, which is pretty difficult to obtain. Some crystals had already been measured this way, but the problem is that the results were averaged values and thus lacked the specific resolution that is necessary for design, Ong said. Furthermore, the surface energy is not a simple number, because it depends on the crystal’s orientation

“A crystal is a regular arrangement of atoms. When you cut a crystal in different places and at different angles, you expose different facets with unique arrangements of atoms,” explained Ong, who teaches the Crystallography of Materials course at UC San Diego.

There was no place with such information for all elemental crystals, so Ong and his team developed sophisticated automated workflows to calculate surface energies virtually, using the open-source Python Materials Genomics library and FireWorks workflow codes of the Materials Project. Their virtual laboratory setup was excellent, thanks to the powerful supercomputers at the San Diego Supercomputer Center and the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center. It simulates the experiments with accuracy, offering all the required information without any hassle.

“This is one of the areas where the ‘virtual laboratory’ can create the most value–by allowing us to precisely control the models and conditions in a way that is extremely difficult to do in experiments.”

At the moment, the database covers only chemical elements, but the team is already working on expanding it to multi-element compounds like alloys, which are made of two or more different metals, and binary oxides, which are made of oxygen and one other element.

Crystallizing books – the spectacular art of Alexis Arnold

We see this too often – loads and loads of discarded books in storage rooms, on the sidewalk, even in our homes. Abandoned books are a much too common sight, and at least to me, a depressing sight. This inspired San Francisco-based artist Alexis Arnold to embark on a fascinating quest to make something beautiful – crystallized books.

“The Crystallized Book series was prompted by repeatedly finding boxes of discarded books, by the onset of e-books, and by the shuttering of bookstores”, she told ZME Science in an email. “Additionally, I had been growing crystals on hard objects and was interested in seeing the effect of the crystal growth on porous, malleable objects.”


Of course, they aren’t technically crystallized books – Alexis uses a super concentrated Borax solution. She boils the thing, allowing more Borax in and then submerging the book in the hot solution, manipulating it in the desired shape and then draining it. Here’s the detailed process, so you can try it out at home. Be careful when handling chemical substances though (especially hot ones) – Borax is not particularly toxic, but sufficient exposure to borax dust can cause respiratory and skin irritation.

“I start by creating a super-saturated solution (ratio of 3 tbl to 1 cup, expanded as needed) of Borax in boiling water. When the water boils, its molecules expand, allowing more Borax in. I submerge the book (or other object) in the hot, saturated solution and carefully manipulate the book to my liking. As the saturated water cools, the molecules shrink and any excess Borax crystallizes. Once the solution has completely cooled and the crystals have grown on the submerged book, I drain the solution and dry the book without disturbing its shape. The books will hold their new, transformed shape when completely dry. The crystals themselves change from translucent to opaque over time depending on atmospheric conditions. This transition can take years or be induced rapidly.”


This is quite a creative process, and while I was toying around with salt crystals years ago, I never actually thought of doing something like this – and I think the artistic statement is impactful as well.


“Conceptually, the series addresses the materiality of the book versus the text or content of the book, in addition to commenting on the vulnerability of the printed form. The crystals remove the text and transform the books into aesthetic, non-functional objects. The books, frozen in a myriad of positions by the crystal growth, have become artifacts or geologic specimens imbued with the history of time, use, and nostalgia.”

If you want to see more of Alexis’ works, you can check out the group exhibition at the Esther Klein Gallery within the University City Science Center in Philadelphia, PA. The show runs February 5 – March 20 and includes a fantastic group of artists who use crystals in their artwork in diverse ways. I took a look at some of the works there and I have to admit – I was just blown away. If you’re in the neighborhood, this is definitely not something you want to miss.


In addition to working with crystals, Alexis is also working hard on new work for a solo show in May at En Em Art Space in Sacramento, CA.




Your favorite drinks – under the microscope

American Amber Ale

Well, microscopic drinks are not really a thing, aren’t they? Not in the clubs where I go, anyway – we like our drinks large. But just stop a moment and think – how would your cocktail or beer look under a microscope? I’d wager this: it’s not like anything you thought.


So, this awesome company called BevShots specializes on microscopic pictures of alcoholic drinks. How do they do this? The pictures were taken after the drinks have been crystallized on a slide and shot under a polarized light microscope. As the light refracts through the beverage crystals, the resulting photos have naturally magnificent colors and composition.

Bloody Mary.

You can buy the printed pictures on the website and use them in your room – this would certainly make for some interesting guest conversation. Just remember: decorate responsibly! To Lester Hutt, president of BevShots, it was just a matter of time before science turned into art.

“I thought to myself that this could do very well as a modern art line,” Hutt says of Davidson’s photographs. “What was nice about it was the images were already all taken; there’s no research that had to go into it.”

English Oatmeal Stout.


But it’s important to note that as you’re looking at these images, you aren’t viewing the actual molecular structure of the alcohol, but rather the crystallized form of the drink, which Davidson achieved by letting a drop of the liquid dry out on a microscope slide. For some drinks, like a piña colada or a margarita, with ingredients other than pure alcohol in them, the crystallization process was fairly straightforward, because the presence of various other particles (like sugar or salt) helped crystals form. But for whiskey or vodka, the process took quite a lot of time – from a few weeks to as much as six months.

Dry Martini.


“If you look at some of the hard liquors, the crystals on those just didn’t form as well as the margarita or martini, because there wasn’t as much dissolved in it to crystallize out. If you have very pure vodka, really all it’s going to be is ethanol and vodka,” Hutt explains. “Those crystals are not as well defined.”


White wine.

Just like snowflakes, no two drinks crystallize alike.

Who always shows up to end the night? Tequila.


Belgian lambic beer.




Crystal-Rich Rock ‘Mojave’ is Next Mars Drill Target

Curiosity is preparing for its second drill on Mars – its eyeing a rock which may have a salty story to tell.

This view from the wide-angle Hazard Avoidance Camera on the front of NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover shows the rover’s drill in position for a mini-drill test to assess whether a rock target called “Mojave” is appropriate for full-depth drilling to collect a sample. It was taken on Jan. 13, 2015.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Mojave rock displays copious slender features, resembling rice grains which appear to be small crystals of salt. The crystals may be left overs from a salty lake from which water has evaporated. This week, Curiosity is beginning a “mini-drill” test to assess the rock’s suitability for deeper drilling, in which it would take the sample in and analyze it. However, we don’t know for sure what the crystals are… they could be something entirely different.

“The crystal shapes are apparent in the earlier images of Mojave, but we don’t know what they represent,” said Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “We’re hoping that mineral identifications we get from the rover’s laboratory will shed more light than we got from just the images and bulk chemistry.”

We probably won’t know for sure until Curiosity actually takes in a sample of the rock; the rover is equipped with a Chemistry and Mineralogy instrument (CheMin) which allows it to identify specific minerals from powder. Geologists working on the project are eager to find out.

“There could be a fairly involved story here,” Vasavada said. “Are they salt crystals left from a drying lake? Or are they more pervasive through the rock, formed by fluids moving through the rock? In either case, a later fluid may have removed or replaced the original minerals with something else.”

Lozenge-shaped crystals are evident in this magnified view of a Martian rock target called “Mojave,” taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) instrument on the arm of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

With the Mojave analysis, Curiosity begins its third round of investigations on Mount Sharp, the central peak within Gale crater where the rover is conducting its studies. In the first stage, Curiosity drove about 360 feet (110 meters) and scouted sites ranging about 30 feet (9 meters) in elevation. Then it underwent a similar path, paying more attention to the details on its way. Mojave was the most interesting thing along its way, and naturally, scientists want to know more about it. Curiosity’s work at Pahrump Hills may include drilling one or more additional rocks before heading to higher layers of Mount Sharp. Next week, Curiosity also has a software revision planned.

“The files have already been uplinked and are sitting in the rover’s file system to be ready for the installation,” said JPL’s Danny Lam, the deputy engineering operations chief leading the upgrade process.

Following the software changes, the rover will be able to use its gyroscope-containing “inertial measurement unit” at the same time as the rover’s drill, for better capability to sense slippage of the rover during a drilling operation. Another is a set of improvements to the rover’s ability to autonomously identify and drive in good terrain. Minor tweaks are also underway.

For more information about Curiosity, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/msl and http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/

You can follow the mission on Facebook and Twitter at: http://www.facebook.com/marscuriosity and http://www.twitter.com/marscuriosity

Source: NASA.


New crystal might allow us to breathe Underwater

Researchers from Denmark have synthesized crystalline materials that can bind and store oxygen in high concentrations, releasing them when needed. A single crystal about the size of a sponge can suck all the oxygen from a room.

Professor Christine McKenzie (center in photo) and postdoc Jonas Sundberg. Credit: Image courtesy of University of Southern Denmark

Naturally, there are many potential applications for this type of technology. The most obvious one would be breathing underwater or in outer space. We do fine with the approximately 21 percent of oxygen in the air, but when you want to breathe in unnatural environments (like those mentioned above) you want oxygen in higher concentrations to fill your tanks – and this is exactly where this type of technology would come in handy.

“This could be valuable for lung patients who today must carry heavy oxygen tanks with them,” said professor Christine McKenzie of the University of Southern Denmark, in a statement. “But also divers may one day be able to leave the oxygen tanks at home and instead get oxygen from this material as it “filters” and concentrates oxygen from surrounding air or water. A few grains contain enough oxygen for one breath, and as the material can absorb oxygen from the water around the diver and supply the diver with it, the diver will not need to bring more than these few grains.”

The material they created is crystalline and it has two main characteristics: it can absorb vast quantities of oxygens and release it whenever necessary.

“An important aspect of this new material is that it does not react irreversibly with oxygen — even though it absorbs oxygen in a so-called selective chemisorptive process. The material is both a sensor, and a container for oxygen — we can use it to bind, store and transport oxygen — like a solid artificial hemoglobin,” says Christine McKenzie.

To make things even better, the material can do this several times without actually losing its ability to absorb oxygen – which means that it could not only be used reliably to breathe underwater, but it could also be used in artificial photosynthesis:

“We see release of oxygen when we heat up the material, and we have also seen it when we apply vacuum. We are now wondering if light can also be used as a trigger for the material to release oxygen — this has prospects in the growing field of artificial photosynthesis,” says Christine McKenzie.

The exact chemical make-up of the crystal haven’t been released yet (or at least I couldn’t find it), but the key element is cobalt.

“Cobalt gives the new material precisely the molecular and electronic structure that enables it to absorb oxygen from its surroundings. This mechanism is well known from all breathing creatures on earth: Humans and many other species use iron, while other animals, like crabs and spiders, use copper. Small amounts of metals are essential for the absorption of oxygen, so actually it is not entirely surprising to see this effect in our new material,” explains Christine McKenzie.

Depending on the atmospheric conditions (oxygen content, humidity etc) it can take anywhere between a few minutes and more than a day. Furthermore, different versions of the substance can bind oxygen at different speeds.

Other potential uses are in medicine:

“This could be valuable for lung patients who today must carry heavy oxygen tanks with them. But also divers may one day be able to leave the oxygen tanks at home and instead get oxygen from this material as it “filters” and concentrates oxygen from surrounding air or water. A few grains contain enough oxygen for one breath, and as the material can absorb oxygen from the water around the diver and supply the diver with it, the diver will not need to bring more than these few grains.”

Journal Reference: Jonas Sundberg, Lisa J. Cameron, Peter D. Southon, Cameron J. Kepert, Christine J. McKenzie. Oxygen chemisorption/desorption in a reversible single-crystal-to-single-crystal transformation. Chemical Science, 2014; 5 (10): 4017 DOI: 10.1039/C4SC01636J

A 4.4 billion-year-old zircon crystal from the Jack Hills region of Australia. Photo: University of Wisconsin

This is the oldest known piece of our planet – a 4.4 billion-year-old gem

Using two different dating technique, geologists have come across what they believe to be the oldest piece of Earth discovered thus far. The zircon crystal, found on a sheep ranch in Western Australia , was confirmed to be 4.4 billion years old and offers tantalizing clues and insights on how our planet must have looked like in its infancy. To put things into perspective, our planet is believed to have formed 4.5 billion years ago.

A 4.4 billion-year-old zircon crystal from the Jack Hills region of Australia. Photo: University of Wisconsin

A 4.4 billion-year-old zircon crystal from the Jack Hills region of Australia. Photo: University of Wisconsin

The geological relic indicates, for one, that Earth’s crust formed shortly after the planet stabilized and formed. John Valley, a University of Wisconsin geoscience professor who led the research, said the findings suggest that the early Earth was not as harsh a place as many scientists have thought.

No doubt, this is an extraordinary find, however, the untrained eye would have surely missed it. Measuring about  200 by 400 microns, or roughly two times the width of a human hair, the tiny gem was luckily retrieved by geologists in 2001 from a rock outcrop in Australia’s Jack Hills region.

“Zircons can be large and very pretty. But the ones we work on are small and not especially attractive except to a geologist,” Professor Valley said. “If you held it in the palm of your hand, if you have good eyesight you could see it without a magnifying glass.”

The zircon fragment was dated using two separate techniques. The first one was the conventional dating through  the study of radioactive decay of uranium to lead in a mineral sample.  Because some scientists voiced that this method is unreliable for samples this old because of the possible movement of lead atoms within the crystal over time, a second technique was employed to date the sample.

The oldest piece of Earth

Using what’s known in the field as atom-probe tomography, the researchers identified individual atoms of lead in the crystal and determined their mass. Indeed, the analysis confirmed that the gem was genuinely 4.4 billion years old.  This suggests that Earth’s crust formed just 100 million years after the planet stabilized under the form of a giant molted ball (or was it?). This also means that the crystal came into existence just 160 million years after the solar system was formed. Yes, this rock right here has seen a few!

Geological timeline of Earth. Photo: University of Wisconsin

Geological timeline of Earth. Photo: University of Wisconsin

Interestingly enough, the zircon crystal seems to support the “cool early Earth” theory that states that during the Hadean eon, when the Earth was exposed to hellish conditions like meteorite bombardment and an initially molten surface, it’s possible that the planet might have hosted oceans and even life even by then.

“One of the things that we’re really interested in is: when did the Earth first become habitable for life? When did it cool off enough that life might have emerged?” Professor Valley said.

“We have no evidence that life existed then. We have no evidence that it didn’t. But there is no reason why life could not have existed on Earth 4.3 billion years ago,” he added.

To our knowledge, the oldest fossil record is  3.4 billion years old – stromatolites produced by an archaic form of bacteria. The gem was covered in a paper published in the journal Nature Geoscience. 

Uranium Crystals May Lead to Safer Nuclear Fuels

Idaho State University researchers have created uranium crystals by crushing nuclear fuel pellets and heating them in a furnace. This was made with the purpose of studying a single uranium crystal, understanding how heat would flow through it, and ultimately develop safer fuels for nuclear reactors.

Uranium crystal. Credit: INL

Uranium crystal. Credit: INL

Eric Burgett, a professor at the University of Idaho, has developed cerium oxide crystals as a practice run, and then moved on to uranium.

“A single crystal allows researchers to test and study a material in its simplest form,” said Burgett, who also is a Center for Advanced Energy Studies affiliate.

The main problem with uranium oxide fuel pellets is that they are composed of multiple crystallites randomly mixed together and whose microstructural makeup can vary from batch to batch – making modelling and predicting them very difficult.

“About 95 percent of the crystals that make up the uranium oxide are randomly oriented. There is no order,” Burgett said. “How can you accurately model and simulate a fuel pellet crystal with randomness? With the crystals we are growing, you can. We will be able to examine a single uranium or uranium oxide crystal and how heat moves through it. That gives us a baseline to understand what happens to the material as it gets more complex and the crystal structure changes.”

INL and other scientists will subject the crystals to a variety of tests to better understand how the material behaves – a crucial part of developing a better type of uranium fuel.

“The more you understand a material, the better you can design a material,” Kennedy said. “These single crystals will allow us to study and understand uranium and uranium oxide in its simplest form.”


Free-electron X-ray laser reveals protein architecture at unprecedented detail

Curious enough, one hundred years after renowned physicist Max von Lauefirst used X-ray diffraction to unravel the intricate atomic architecture of molecules, a team of international scientists have analyzed tiny protein crystals at an unprecedent scale of resolution, premiering in the process the world’s first hard X-ray free-electron laser. Called the Linac Coherent Light Source at Stanford, the X-ray laser was made possible after a 300 million dollars investment from behalf of the US Department of Energy.

Most of our current knowledge regarding the 3D spatial architecture of molecules has come as a result of X-ray crystallography, a field of science which has seen much progress in the past few decades, making possible equally amounts of achievements in molecular analysis.  Crystalography basically studies the spatial arrangements of atoms in solids. Modern crystallography relies on the amplification of the scattering signal of the molecules by their arrangement into relatively large crystals, often on the order of some tenths of a millimeter.

Large crystals, extremelly helpful for accurate analysis, are very difficult to obtain, however, especially in the case of bio-molecules due to instability and low abundance. This is where free-electron lasers come in, revealing structural information from crystals otherwise unobtainable through conventioanl methods, since radiation irremedially damages them before anything useful can be drawn.

The innovative X-ray free-electron lasers are new X-ray sources of extreme potency, capable of releasing high intensity ultrashort flashes of light. The intensity of such an X-ray pulse is more than a billion times higher than that provided by the most brilliant state-of-the-art X-ray sources, with a thousand-fold shorter pulse length, on the order of a few millionths of a billionth of a second, or femtoseconds. These properties provide scientists with novel tools to explore the nano-world, including the structure of biological materials.

This extremely high frequency of firing light flashes allows the X-ray free-electron laser to record information from the sample before damage irremediably occurs. The crystals samples are destroyed in the process, much like by conventional means, but it’s so fast it gets what it needs from the crystal before interferring damage gets a change to disrupt analysis.

The structure of the protein lysozyme, the first ever molecule to have its architecture revealed. Depicted is the schematic of the spatial arrangement of the 129 amino acids shown in the form of spirals (helices) and arrows (pleated sheets). © MPI for Medical Research

The structure of the protein lysozyme, the first ever molecule to have its architecture revealed. Depicted is the schematic of the spatial arrangement of the 129 amino acids shown in the form of spirals (helices) and arrows (pleated sheets). © MPI for Medical Research

To benchmark the method, the researchers investigated the structure of an exhaustively studied molecule, the small protein lysozyme, the first enzyme ever to have its structure revealed. Ten thousand snapshot exposures from crystals that measured only a thousandth of a millimeter, showed that the data compared well with those collected using conventional approaches and hundred-fold larger lysozyme crystals.

“This proof-of-principle experiment shows that the X-ray free-electron laser indeed lives up to its promise as an important new tool for structural biology on large macromolecular assemblies and membrane proteins. It really opens up a completely new terrain in structural biology”, Ilme Schlichting, leading the Max-Planck team, says.

The reserach was spearheaded by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg and the Max Planck Advanced Study Group in Hamburg. The findings were reported in a recent edition of the journal Science – you can read more about it in the magazine.



The star-diamond

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are!
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky!

Well maybe the title is a bit far fetched, but I’m really stoked to find out about such a thing; the star in case, BPM 37093 is a variable white dwarf star that consists entirely of crystallized carbon, in the form of diamonds (well, technically speaking, body-centered cubic lattice of carbon; basically, crystallized in the cubic system).

Previous research had indicated that as a white dwarf cools, it crystallizes, starting from the center, and more recent work shows that about 90% of its mass has already done so, making it technically the biggest diamond we know of, at about 10 billion trillion trillion carats.

Astrophysicists nicknamed the star Lucy, after The Beatles song Lucy in the sky with diamonds. Man, you just gotta love astrophysicists.

Mineral Kingdom Co-evolved With Life

Evolution isn’t just for living organisms, as scientists the Carnegie Institution found. They found that more than 3000 of the 4000+ minerals that exist can be linked more or less directly to biological life. This finding could have a crucial importance for scientists that are searching for life on other planets.

Robert Hazen and Dominic Papineau of the Carnegie Institution’s Geophysical Laboratory along with 6 of their colleagues analyzed physical and chemical properties of that gradually transformed different primordial minerals in interstellar dust grains to the minerals that are present here on Earth. They also analyzed the crystal structure, which is crucial for defining the properties of the minerals.

“It’s a different way of looking at minerals from more traditional approaches,” says Hazen. “Mineral evolution is obviously different from Darwinian evolution—minerals don’t mutate, reproduce or compete like living organisms. But we found both the variety and relative abundances of minerals have changed dramatically over more than 4.5 billion years of Earth’s history.”

“For at least 2.5 billion years, and possibly since the emergence of life, Earth’s mineralogy has evolved in parallel with biology,” he adds. “One implication of this finding is that remote observations of the mineralogy of other moons and planets may provide crucial evidence for biological influences beyond Earth.”