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 derives from the Ancient Greek word κρύσταλλος(krustallos), meaning both “ice” and “rock crystal“, from κρύος (kruos), “icy cold, frost“.
Examples of large crystals include snowflakes, diamonds, and table salt. Most inorganic solids are not crystals but polycrystals, i.e. many microscopic crystals fused together into a single solid.
Examples of polycrystals include most metals, rocks, ceramics, and ice. A third category of solids is amorphous solids, where the atoms have no periodic structure whatsoever.
Examples of amorphous solids include glass, wax, and many plastics.
Despite the name, lead crystal, crystal glass, and related products are notcrystals, but rather types of glass, i.e. amorphous solids.
Crystals are often used in pseudoscientific practices such as crystal therapy, and, along with gemstones, are sometimes associated with spellwork in Wiccan beliefs and related religious movements.
Crystal structure (microscopic)
Halite (table salt, NaCl) Microscopic and macroscopic
Microscopic structure of a Halite (mineral ) crystal. (Purple is sodium, Ion,while een is chlorine ion). There is cubic symmetryin the atoms’ arrangement
Macroscopic (~16cm) halite crystal. The right-angles between crystal faces are due to the cubic symmetry of the atoms’ arrangement.
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. (Quasicrystals are an exception, see below).
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 (mineral) shown at right) or hexagonal crystal system (where the crystals may form hexagons, such as ordinary water ice).
Crystal faces and shapes
As a Halite (mineral) crystal is growing, new atoms can very easily attach to the parts of the surface with rough atomic-scale structure and many dangling bonds. Therefore, these parts of the crystal grow out very quickly (yellow arrows). Eventually, the whole surface consists of smooth, stable faces, where new atoms cannot as easily attach themselves.
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 Plane of relatively low millar 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).