Campus News

Time to shine! National crystal-growing contest judged at UB

A judge holds up one of the crystals submitted for the crystal-growing contest in front of a large UB banner.

Judges score submissions based on quality and size, with cash prizes of up to $200 going to the biggest, best crystals. Photos: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

By CHARLOTTE HSU

Published December 13, 2017

“Watching something grow, it’s like a garden — it gives you a feeling of achievement. You put a lot of effort into it.”
Michael Nippe, assistant professor of chemistry
Texas A&M University

The largest was the size of a golf ball. The smallest, the size of a pea.

On Monday, judges convened on UB’s North Campus to inspect and rate more than 150 crystals that schoolchildren and teachers sent to Buffalo from across the country for the fourth annual U.S. Crystal Growing Competition.

This year’s entries varied widely in shape and quality. Some had smooth, gleaming facets. Others were cloudy, with jagged rock-candy edges.

The top-scoring crystals will be announced in the next couple of weeks via the contest website and Twitter account. But win or lose, competition founder and organizer Jason Benedict, UB associate professor of chemistry, hopes that each participant had fun and learned some science in the process.

“Crystals are part of our daily lives,” he said. “They’re found in snow, salt, sugar, computer processors and chemical sorbents used to soak up hazardous materials. The competition gives school kids and teachers an opportunity to see how crystals grow, and to do it in a fun, competitive environment.”

Jason Benedict and the panel of judges give the thumbs-up during the judging of the annual crystal growing contest.

Jason Benedict (left) and the panel of judges give the thumbs-up during the judging of the annual crystal growing contest.

‘Is this a bracelet?’ And other fun crystals

Each fall, competition participants have five weeks to grow crystals using aluminum potassium sulfate (alum), a nontoxic chemical used in water purification.

Judges score submissions based on quality and size, with cash prizes of up to $200 going to the biggest, best crystals.

This year, for the first time, the contest also included a “Coolest Crystal” category.

Entries mailed or hand-delivered to UB for consideration in this area included colored crystals in hues from orange to aquamarine and lazurite blue; a glow-in-the-dark crystal grown in the presence of ink siphoned from a highlighter; and a lumpy, uneven crystal clumped around a mini Christmas tree.

“Is this a bracelet?” quipped Ekin Atilla-Gokcumen, assistant professor of chemistry and one of eight judges, as she held up a strand of several small, glimmering crystals grown along a single string.

The guidelines for growing crystals for the “Coolest Crystal” category were open-ended, Benedict said. They boiled down to, “Don’t do anything dangerous,” he said.

In addition to Atilla-Gokcumen, this year’s judges included:

  • Lee Ayscue, PhD candidate in chemistry, Georgetown University.
  • Sue Bratcher, instructional support technician in geology, UB.
  • Timothy Cook, assistant professor of chemistry, UB.
  • David Lacy, assistant professor of chemistry, UB.
  • Travis Nelson, geologist and graduate instructional support technician in geology, UB.
  • Michael Nippe, assistant professor of chemistry, Texas A&M University.
  • Luis Velarde, assistant professor of chemistry, UB.

Interest increasing every year

More than 160 teams representing about 4,000 participants — including entire K-12 classes — requested crystal-growing materials for this year’s contest.

That’s up from about 90 in 2016 and 40 in 2014, the event’s inaugural year. Not all participants ended up mailing in entries, but many who did submitted multiple crystals for judging, as the contest allows.

Kids and teachers took care to wrap their crystals snugly before popping them into the mail. The entries arrived in all sorts of containers — pill bottles, a jewelry box, bubble wrap, and what looked like urine sample cups stuffed with soft padding, said Gage Bateman, a UB PhD candidate in Benedict’s lab.

He and Nippe, who plans to start a similar statewide contest in Texas next year, both said that part of the contest’s allure for kids is feeling ownership over something they’ve created. As Nippe said, “Watching something grow, it’s like a garden — it gives you a feeling of achievement. You put a lot of effort into it.”