Science, and some sparkle! Kids can grow crystals in this national contest

The U.S. Crystal Growing Competition invites students and teachers to do hands-on chemistry

Release Date: September 17, 2021

“There is something almost magical about growing a large crystal and holding it in your hands. ”
Jason Benedict, UB associate professor of chemistry and founder of the U.S. Crystal Growing Competition

BUFFALO, N.Y. — From chocolate to snowflakes to salt, crystals are everywhere in our daily lives.

This fall, kids and teens across the country can grow their own big, sparkly crystals as part of the U.S. Crystal Growing Competition, founded by a University at Buffalo chemistry professor and organized by professional chemists across the nation.

“There is something almost magical about growing a large crystal and holding it in your hands,” says contest founder Jason Benedict, PhD, associate professor of chemistry in the UB College of Arts and Sciences.

“One super awesome thing about growing crystals and participating in the competition? Kids can do this at home or at school,” he adds.

Details about the 2021 U.S. Crystal Growing Competition:

Williamsville South High School science teacher Jeff Yap demonstrates glowing crystals his class created using highlighter ink for a past edition of the U.S. Crystal Growing Competition. Credit: Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo

  • What: The contest challenges participants to grow the biggest, most beautiful crystals they can with aluminum potassium sulfate (alum), a nontoxic chemical used in water purification.
  • When: Oct. 1 is the deadline to order alum, the crystal-growing material. Crystal-growing starts on Oct. 18, coinciding with National Chemistry Week, and continues for five weeks.
  • Who: K-12 students and teachers across the U.S. can compete, whether they’re back in the classroom or learning at home.
  • How to enter: To enter the contest, visit the U.S. Crystal Growing Competition website to fill out an entry form and order alum​, the crystal-growing material. Each 500-gram bottle of alum, enough for five crystals, costs $8, which includes shipping. Later, participants will be asked to mail their crystals to contest organizers for judging. 
  • Prizes: Winners choose from cash prizes or fun crystal models.

How to grow a big, sparkly crystal (videos):

Good alum crystals are colorless, transparent and octahedral. They sparkle when they catch the light.

Growing a great crystal isn’t easy: Go too fast, and you could see imperfections like occlusions or jagged edges (think rock candy). Go too slow, and you’ll end up with a miniscule crystal. Testing different techniques is all part of the fun, Benedict says.

The team behind the competition:

Big things are happening! UB chemist Jason Benedict, founder of the U.S. Crystal Growing Competition, shows off an enormous alum crystal. If you sign up for the contest, your crystal won't get this big (for the purposes of competition, growing time and the amount of crystal-growing material allowed are restricted). But your crystal could be just as beautiful and sparkly, and hopefully you'll have lots of fun! Credit: Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo

The contest’s organizers — known as the Crystallites — include Jason Benedict and Tasha Benedict at UB; Karah Knope, PhD, at Georgetown University; Michael Nippe, PhD, at Texas A&M University; Jeff Rack, PhD, at the University of New Mexico; and Fernando Uribe-Romo, PhD, at the University of Central Florida.

The U.S. Crystal Growing Competition is sponsored by the American Crystallographic Association (which is based in Buffalo); the U.S. National Science Foundation; VWR and Ward’s Science; the UB Department of Chemistry; Georgetown University Department of Chemistry; the Texas A&M Department of Chemistry; the University of Central Florida Department of Chemistry; the University of New Mexico Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology; the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering; the Western New York section of the American Chemical Society; Bruker; Krackeler Scientific; Rigaku; and individuals who have made donations.

The first-place winner in the “cool crystal” category in the 2020 U.S. Crystal Growing Competition. This snowperson crystal was submitted by a team from Lyme-Old Lyme High School in Connecticut. Credit: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki / University at Buffalo

Media Contact Information

Charlotte Hsu is a former staff writer in University Communications. To contact UB's media relations staff, email or visit our list of current university media contacts.