Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago have unlocked a part of this mystery by using computer-based simulations to analyze how the atoms and molecules move in a solution, the UIC team identified a general mechanism governing crystal growth that scientists can manipulate when developing new materials.
While crystals have been studied for centuries and are also ubiquitous in daily life, they are in our bones, the food we eat and even the batteries we use. Scientists still don’t understand how crystals grow or how to efficiently manufacture them. But scientific efforts to improve a wide range of crystalline materials, from the self-healing biomaterials to solar panels, have been limited.
Specifically, they had found that when crystal-forming molecules are surrounded by a solvent, like water, the solvent molecules form a shield that they call a solvation shell. When this shield fluctuates, the molecules then break free to form crystals. They showed that temperature, solvent type and the number of solvent molecules all affect the shell’s fluctuation.
Their findings are also reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“For the first time, we have shown what happens when a molecule will leave a solvent to form a crystal,” said Meenesh Singh who is an assistant professor of chemical engineering at the UIC College and also the senior author.
Singh also said that understanding this mechanism will provide scientists with greater ability to direct molecules to form crystals for specific structure, shape, and size. He said that this will also allow making better materials for a wide class of products used in daily life.
“The molecular insight gained from this study will help save money in the various chemical industries by reducing the need for hit or miss techniques in thousands of trials,” said Anish Dighe who is UIC graduate student and co-author of the paper. “With the help of this study, we can design systems that can crystallize the desired solute molecule without so many trials.”