No, this isn’t “Breaking Bad,” but it does
have some of the elements of the hit TV show: A chemistry teacher.
Disciples ready to learn. And, of course, crystals.
This past fall, in conjunction with the International Year of
Crystallography, UB chemist Jason
Benedict organized the first-ever U.S. Crystal Growing
Competition. In mid-December, five UB faculty members judged a
total of 68 entries, mailed to Benedict’s lab by K-12
students and teachers from around the country.
Benedict’s research focuses on sponge-like crystals called
MOFs (metal-organic frameworks) that could one day be used to mop
up toxins or deliver drugs to tumors. He dreamed up the contest as
a way to get children interested in the science of crystallography,
which underlies the development of everything from drugs to
It seems the strategy worked. In the words of sixth-grader Renee
Aga of Amherst, N.Y.—winner of “Best Overall
Crystal” in the K-8 category—“It was just
Because it’s easy to grow a perfect crystal that’s
very small, Benedict created the “Jose Rule,” named for
a member of his lab who submitted a teeny tiny crystal in a trial
contest. “I think I even lost his crystal, it was so
small,” Benedict recalls. According to the Jose Rule, entries
had to weigh at least half a gram.
One problem with growing a crystal too fast is that multiple
miniscule crystals can emerge as the water rapidly vanishes.
Crystals grow as bits of alum gather on a central seed. The
process isn't clean: If you could view it with a microscope, you'd
see alum particles adhering to the seed, then falling off and
reattaching. Slow growth enables orderly assembly. Fast growth
breeds occlusions, which appear when particles attach at the wrong
spot and can't unhitch before others pile on.
Like Rock Candy, In a Bad Way
“This is just a mess,” Benedict says. The rough,
junky edges hint at a hectic history, in which individual units of
alum surfaced too fast to gather in a regular pattern.
Or maybe we should say, “Bling, bling, bling!” This
big fellow is a winner: It’s clear and reflects light
beautifully. It also has the right shape: eight primary sides, all