How to Grow a Large Single Crystal: Part 1 (Growing a Seed Crystal).
Release Date: October 16, 2018
BUFFALO, N.Y. — In 2014, University at Buffalo crystallographer Jason Benedict had an idea: What better way to share his love of science and crystals than to start a nationwide contest in which kids can grow their own?
This month, the U.S. Crystal Growing Competition is marking its 5th year, and it’s a glowing success. Over 250 teams have signed up this year, representing thousands of K-12 students and teachers, along with home-schooling families. Participants hail from 42 states and Washington D.C.
Growing begins on Oct. 22, coinciding with National Chemistry Week, and continues for five weeks. After that, kids and classrooms will mail entries to UB for judging. Winners in various categories will receive cash prizes of up to $200.
“It is events like this that help get our students excited about (the) sciences, especially in an underprivileged district like ours… It also allowed an organic chemist like me to go back to my days of growing crystals for X-ray,” says past participant Bradley Miller, PhD, head chemistry teacher at J.C. Harmon High School in Kansas City, Kansas.
"This contest directly exposes kids to the world of crystals and crystal growth, which are vitally important to modern science in terms of health care, materials and food,” says Jason Benedict, PhD, an associate professor of chemistry in the UB College of Arts and Sciences. “Crystals play an enormous role in our daily lives, and I feel like their science is underrepresented in U.S. education.”
Sugar, salt and chocolate are crystals, Jason Benedict says. So are snowflakes.
As an example of why crystal-growing matters, he notes that many pharmaceuticals are crystalline, and that developing methods to grow these structures in a pure form is vital to producing effective drugs to treat disease.
To expand the competition’s impact and reach, Jason Benedict — who remains the lead organizer — has brought on regional coordinators from Georgetown University, Texas A&M University and the University of Central Florida.
Children taking part in the competition cultivate their crystals from aluminum potassium sulfate — or “alum” — a nontoxic chemical used in water purification.
Each team starts with 100 grams of powdered alum (provided for free by organizers). To grow a crystal, kids dissolve the material into water, then let the water evaporate. This causes the compound to emerge from the solution to form a crystal.
Like gardening, it’s work that requires patience and finesse: If the water evaporates too quickly, too much of the alum will crystallize, causing imperfections such as occlusions or jagged edges (think rock candy). Go too slow, and you’ll get a miniscule crystal.
But if you time it all just right, you’ll get a big, beautiful crystal, with sharp edges, clear facets and tons of shine.
“To be able to use your own skills — your own hands — to cultivate a large single crystal easily the size of a golf ball is really a special experience,” Jason Benedict says. “Once you’ve done it, you don’t forget it. It is almost magical that nature is able to put these atoms and molecules and ions together into such a perfect periodic, symmetric shaped object.”
Travis Nelson, geologist and graduate instructional support technician in UB's geology department, inspects a crystal at the 2016 judging. He will return as a judge this year, along with other experts. Credit: Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo
These two crystals were among entries submitted to the 2017 contest. Credit: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki / University at Buffalo
UB Assistant Professor of Chemistry Luis Velarde (center) was among past judges who were called into service again to judge the 2017 U.S. Crystal Growing Competition. Credit: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki / University at Buffalo
The judging of the 2017 U.S. Crystal Growing Competition, which gives K-12 students and teachers five weeks to grow the best, brightest crystals out of powdered aluminum potassium sulfate. Credit: Credit: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki / University at Buffalo
Judging of the 2016 U.S. Crystal Growing Competition. Credit: Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo
An entry submitted in the 2016 U.S. Crystal Growing Competition. Credit: Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo
During the 2017 judging, UB Assistant Professor of Chemistry Ekin Atilla-Gokcumen examines a crystal submitted for the "Coolest Crystal" category, new that year. Credit: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki / University at Buffalo
The largest and smallest crystals submitted to the contest in 2017. The largest is about 73 grams. The smallest is 0.56 grams, just large enough not to be disqualified by what competition organizer and UB chemistry professor Jason Benedict calls the "Jose" rule, which sets the minimum crystal size at 0.5 grams. The rule is named for an undergraduate who won a trial contest — which Benedict staged for members of his lab several years ago — by growing a nearly perfect but miniscule crystal. Credit: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki / University at Buffalo
The contest builds on Western New York’s history as a center for crystallography, the study of crystals and their structures.
The American Crystallographic Association is based in Buffalo, and pre-eminent crystallographers from the region include the late Nobel Laureate Herbert A. Hauptman and the late Philip Coppens, a SUNY Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at UB who received the International Union of Crystallography’s Ewald Prize for outstanding contributions to the field, an award given just 11 times since 1986.
Today, UB and the Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute remain internationally recognized leaders in crystallography. Both are partners in the Biology with X-ray Free Electron Lasers (BioXFEL) Science and Technology Center, a national consortium — headquartered in Buffalo — that is breaking new ground in the field.
The U.S. Crystal Growing Competition is sponsored by the American Crystallographic Association, the UB Department of Chemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences, the Western New York section of the American Chemical Society, Bruker, The Cambridge Crystallographic Data Centre, Krackeler Scientific, the National Science Foundation, VWR and Ward’s Science, along with individuals who have made donations.