The particles in a crystal occupy positions with definite geometrical relationships to each other. The positions form a kind of scaffolding, called a crystalline lattice; the atomic occupancies of lattice positions are determined by the chemical composition of the substance. A crystalline substance is uniquely defined by the combination of its chemistry and the structural arrangement of its atoms. In all crystals of any specific substance the angles between corresponding faces are constant (Steno's Law, or the First Law of Crystallography, published by the Danish geologist Nicolaus Steno in 1669). Crystalline substances are grouped, according to the type of symmetry they display, into 32 classes. These in turn are grouped into seven systems on the basis of the relationships of their axes, i.e., imaginary straight lines passing through the ideal centers of the crystals.
Crystals may be symmetrical with relation to planes, axes, and centers of symmetry. Planes of symmetry divide crystals into equal parts (mirror images) that correspond point for point, angle for angle, and face for face. Axes of symmetry are imaginary lines about which the crystal may be considered to rotate, assuming, after passing through a rotation of 60°, 90°, 120°, or 180°, the identical position in space that it originally had. Centers of symmetry are points from which imaginary straight lines may be drawn to intersect identical points equidistant from the center on opposite sides.
The crystalline systems are cubic, or isometric (three equal axes, intersecting at right angles); hexagonal (three equal axes, intersecting at 60° angles in a horizontal plane, and a fourth, longer or shorter, axis, perpendicular to the plane of the other three); tetragonal (two equal, horizontal axes at right angles and one axis longer or shorter than the other two and perpendicular to their plane); orthorhombic (three unequal axes intersecting at right angles); monoclinic (three unequal axes, two intersecting at right angles and the third at an oblique angle to the plane of the other two); trigonal, or rhombohedral (three equal axes intersecting at oblique angles); and triclinic (three unequal axes intersecting at oblique angles). In all systems in which the axes are unequal there is a definite axial ratio for each crystal substance.
Crystals differ in physical properties, i.e., in hardness, cleavage, optical properties, heat conductivity, and electrical conductivity. These properties are important since they sometimes determine the use to which the crystals are put in industry. For example, crystalline substances that have special electrical properties are much used in communications equipment. These include quartz and Rochelle salt, which supply voltage on the application of mechanical force (see piezoelectric effect), and germanium, silicon, galena, and silicon carbide, which carry current unequally in different crystallographic directions, as semiconductor rectifiers.
See solid-state physics.
See F. C. Phillips, An Introduction to Crystallography (1970); J. D. Dana, Manual of Mineralogy (18th ed., rev. by C. S. Hurlbut, Jr., 1971); B. K. Vainshtein, Modern Crystallography (2 vol., 1981-82).
Rock crystal from the Dauphiné region of France.
Learn more about rock crystal with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Optoelectronic device used in displays for watches, calculators, notebook computers, and other electronic devices. Current passed through specific portions of the liquid crystal solution causes the crystals to align, blocking the passage of light. Doing so in a controlled and organized manner produces visual images on the display screen. The advantage of LCDs is that they are much lighter and consume less power than other display technologies (e.g., cathode-ray tubes). These characteristics make them an ideal choice for flat-panel displays, as in portable laptop and notebook computers.
Learn more about liquid crystal display (LCD) with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Substance that flows like a liquid but maintains some of the ordered structure characteristic of a crystal. Some organic substances do not melt directly when heated but instead turn from a crystalline solid to a liquid crystalline state. When heated further, a true liquid is formed. Liquid crystals have unique properties. The structures are easily affected by changes in mechanical stress, electromagnetic fields, temperature, and chemical environment. Seealso liquid crystal display.
Learn more about liquid crystal with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Any solid material whose atoms are arranged in a definite pattern and whose surface regularity reflects its internal symmetry. Each of a crystal's millions of individual structural units (unit cells) contains all the substance's atoms, molecules, or ions in the same proportions as in its chemical formula (see formula weight). The cells are repeated in all directions to form a geometric pattern, manifested by the number and orientation of external planes (crystal faces). Crystals are classified into seven crystallographic systems based on their symmetry: isometric, trigonal, hexagonal, tetragonal, orthorhombic, monoclinic, and triclinic. Crystals are generally formed when a liquid solidifies, a vapour becomes supersaturated (see saturation), or a liquid solution can no longer retain dissolved material, which is then precipitated. Metals, alloys, minerals, and semiconductors are all crystalline, at least microscopically. (A noncrystalline solid is called amorphous.) Under special conditions, a single crystal can grow to a substantial size; examples include gemstones and some artificial crystals. Few crystals are perfect; defects affect the material's electrical behaviour and may weaken or strengthen it. Seealso liquid crystal.
Learn more about crystal with a free trial on Britannica.com.
The Crystal Palace at Sydenham Hill, London. It was designed by Sir Joseph Paxton for the Great elipsis
Learn more about Crystal Palace with a free trial on Britannica.com.
The word crystal is a loan from the ancient Greek word κρύσταλλος (krustallos), which had the same meaning, but according to the ancient understanding of crystal. At root it means anything congealed by freezing, such as ice. The word once referred particularly to quartz, or "rock crystal". Most metals encountered in everyday life are polycrystals. Crystals are often symmetrically intergrown to form crystal twins.
The process of forming a crystalline structure from a fluid or from materials dissolved in the fluid is often referred to as crystallization. In the ancient example referenced by the root meaning of the word crystal, water being cooled undergoes a phase change from liquid to solid beginning with small ice crystals that grow until they fuse, forming a polycrystalline structure. The physical properties of the ice depend on the size and arrangement of the individual crystals, or grains, and the same may be said of metals solidifying from a molten state.
Which crystal structure the fluid will form depends on the chemistry of the fluid, the conditions under which it is being solidified, and also on the ambient pressure. While the cooling process usually results in the generation of a crystalline material, under certain conditions, the fluid may be frozen in a noncrystalline state. In most cases, this involves cooling the fluid so rapidly that atoms cannot travel to their lattice sites before they lose mobility. A noncrystalline material, which has no long-range order, is called an amorphous, vitreous, or glassy material. It is also often referred to as an amorphous solid, although there are distinct differences between solids and glasses: most notably, the process of forming a glass does not release the latent heat of fusion. For this reason, many scientists consider glassy materials to be viscous liquids rather than solids, although this is a controversial topic.
Crystalline structures occur in all classes of materials, with all types of chemical bonds. Almost all metal exists in a polycrystalline state; amorphous or single-crystal metals must be produced synthetically, often with great difficulty. Ionically bonded crystals can form upon solidification of salts, either from a molten fluid or when it condenses from a solution. Covalently bonded crystals are also very common, notable examples being diamond, silica, and graphite. Polymer materials generally will form crystalline regions, but the lengths of the molecules usually prevent complete crystallization. Weak Van der Waals forces can also play a role in a crystal structure; for example, this type of bonding loosely holds together the hexagonal-patterned sheets in graphite.
Most crystalline materials have a variety of crystallographic defects. The types and structures of these defects can have a profound effect on the properties of the materials.
Since the initial discovery of crystal-like individual arrays of atoms that are not regularly repeated, made in 1982 by Dan Shechtman, the acceptance of the concept and the word quasicrystal have led the International Union of Crystallography to redefine the term crystal to mean "any solid having an essentially discrete diffraction diagram", thereby shifting the essential attribute of crystallinity from position space to Fourier space. Within the family of crystals one distinguishes between traditional crystals, which are periodic, or repeating, at the atomic scale, and aperiodic crystals which are not. This broader definition adopted in 1996 reflects the current understanding that microscopic periodicity is a sufficient but not a necessary condition for crystals.
While the term "crystal" has a precise meaning within materials science and solid-state physics, colloquially "crystal" refers to solid objects that exhibit well-defined and often pleasing geometric shapes. In this sense of the word, many types of crystals are found in nature. The shape of these crystals is dependent on the types of molecular bonds between the atoms to determine the structure, as well as on the conditions under which they formed. Snowflakes, diamonds, and common salt are common examples of crystals.
Some crystalline materials may exhibit special electrical properties such as the ferroelectric effect or the piezoelectric effect. Additionally, light passing through a crystal is often refracted or bent in different directions, producing an array of colors; crystal optics is the study of these effects. In periodic dielectric structures a range of unique optical properties can be expected as seen in photonic crystals.
Crystallography is the scientific study of crystals and crystal formation.
Inorganic matter, if free to take that physical state in which it is most stable, always tends to crystallize. Crystalline rock masses have consolidated from aqueous solution or from molten magma. The vast majority of igneous rocks belong to this group 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 lavas were poured out at the surface and cooled very rapidly; in this latter group a small amount of amorphous or glassy matter is frequent. Other crystalline rocks, the evaporites such as rock salt, gypsum and some limestones have been deposited from aqueous solution, mostly owing to evaporation in arid climates. Still another group, the metamorphic rocks which includes the marbles, mica-schists and quartzites; are recrystallized, that is to say, they were at first fragmental rocks, like limestone, shale and sandstone and have never been in a molten condition nor entirely in solution. The high temperature and pressure conditions of metamorphism have acted on them erasing their original structures, and inducing recrystallization in the solid state.
|Crystal||Particles||Attractive forces||Melting point||Other properties|
|Ionic||Positive and negative ions||Electrostatic attractions||High||Hard, brittle, good electrical conductor in molten state|
|Molecular||Polar molecules||London force and dipole-dipole attraction||Low||Soft, non-conductor or extremely poor conductor of electricity in liquid state|
|Molecular||Non-polar molecules||London force||Low||Soft, non-conductor or extremely poor conductor of electricity in liquid state|
|Network||Atoms||Covalent bonds||Very high||Very hard, non-conductor of electricity|
|Metallic||Positive ions and mobile electrons||Metallic bonds||Fairly high||Hard or soft, malleable and ductile, good electrical conductor|