Crystallography is the experimental science of determining the arrangement of atoms in crystalline solids (see crystal structure). The word "crystallography" is derived from the Greek words crystallon "cold drop, frozen drop", with its meaning extending to all solids with some degree of transparency, and graphein "to write". In July 2012, the United Nations recognised the importance of the science of crystallography by proclaiming that 2014 would be the International Year of Crystallography.[1] X-ray crystallography is used to determine the structure of large biomolecules such as proteins. Before the development of X-ray diffraction crystallography (see below), the study of crystals was based on physical measurements of their geometry. This involved measuring the angles of crystal faces relative to each other and to theoretical reference axes (crystallographic axes), and establishing the symmetry of the crystal in question. This physical measurement is carried out using a goniometer. The position in 3D space of each crystal face is plotted on a stereographic net such as a Wulff net or Lambert net. The pole to each face is plotted on the net. Each point is labelled with its Miller index. The final plot allows the symmetry of the crystal to be established.

Crystallographic methods now depend on analysis of the diffraction patterns of a sample targeted by a beam of some type. X-rays are most commonly used; other beams used include electrons or neutrons. This is facilitated by the wave properties of the particles. Crystallographers often explicitly state the type of beam used, as in the terms X-ray crystallography, neutron diffraction and electron diffraction. These three types of radiation interact with the specimen in different ways.

Because of these different forms of interaction, the three types of radiation are suitable for different crystallographic studies.

A crystalline solid: atomic resolution image of strontium titanate. Brighter atoms are strontium and darker ones are titanium.


An image of a small object is made using a lens to focus the beam, similar to a lens in a microscope. However, the wavelength of visible light (about 4000 to 7000 ångström) is three orders of magnitude longer than the length of typical atomic bonds and atoms themselves (about 1 to 2 Å). Therefore, obtaining information about the spatial arrangement of atoms requires the use of radiation with shorter wavelengths, such as X-ray or neutron beams. Employing shorter wavelengths implied abandoning microscopy and true imaging, however, because there exists no material from which a lens capable of focusing this type of radiation can be created. Scientists have had some success focusing X-rays with microscopic Fresnel zone plates made from gold, and by critical-angle reflection inside long tapered capillaries.[2] Diffracted X-ray or neutron beams cannot be focused to produce images, so the sample structure must be reconstructed from the diffraction pattern. Sharp features in the diffraction pattern arise from periodic, repeating structure in the sample, which are often very strong due to coherent reflection of many photons from many regularly spaced instances of similar structure, while non-periodic components of the structure result in diffuse (and usually weak) diffraction features - areas with a higher density and repetition of atom order tend to reflect more light toward one point in space when compared to those areas with fewer atoms and less repetition.

Because of their highly ordered and repetitive structure, crystals give diffraction patterns of sharp Bragg reflection spots, and are ideal for analyzing the structure of solids.


  • Coordinates in square brackets such as [100] denote a direction vector (in real space).
  • Coordinates in angle brackets or chevrons such as <100> denote a family of directions which are related by symmetry operations. In the cubic crystal system for example, <100> would mean [100], [010], [001] or the negative of any of those directions.
  • Miller indices in parentheses such as (100) denote a plane of the crystal structure, and regular repetitions of that plane with a particular spacing. In the cubic system, the normal to the (hkl) plane is the direction [hkl], but in lower-symmetry cases, the normal to (hkl) is not parallel to [hkl].
  • Indices in curly brackets or braces such as {100} denote a family of planes and their normals. In cubic materials the symmetry makes them equivalent, just as the way angle brackets denote a family of directions. In non-cubic materials, <hkl> is not necessarily perpendicular to {hkl}.


Some materials that have been analyzed crystallographically, such as proteins, do not occur naturally as crystals. Typically, such molecules are placed in solution and allowed to slowly crystallize through vapor diffusion. A drop of solution containing the molecule, buffer, and precipitants is sealed in a container with a reservoir containing a hygroscopic solution. Water in the drop diffuses to the reservoir, slowly increasing the concentration and allowing a crystal to form. If the concentration were to rise more quickly, the molecule would simply precipitate out of solution, resulting in disorderly granules rather than an orderly and hence usable crystal.

Once a crystal is obtained, data can be collected using a beam of radiation. Although many universities that engage in crystallographic research have their own X-ray producing equipment, synchrotrons are often used as X-ray sources, because of the purer and more complete patterns such sources can generate. Synchrotron sources also have a much higher intensity of X-ray beams, so data collection takes a fraction of the time normally necessary at weaker sources. Complementary neutron crystallography techniques are used to identify the positions of hydrogen atoms, since X-rays only interact very weakly with light elements such as hydrogen.

Producing an image from a diffraction pattern requires sophisticated mathematics and often an iterative process of modelling and refinement. In this process, the mathematically predicted diffraction patterns of an hypothesized or "model" structure are compared to the actual pattern generated by the crystalline sample. Ideally, researchers make several initial guesses, which through refinement all converge on the same answer. Models are refined until their predicted patterns match to as great a degree as can be achieved without radical revision of the model. This is a painstaking process, made much easier today by computers.

The mathematical methods for the analysis of diffraction data only apply to patterns, which in turn result only when waves diffract from orderly arrays. Hence crystallography applies for the most part only to crystals, or to molecules which can be coaxed to crystallize for the sake of measurement. In spite of this, a certain amount of molecular information can be deduced from patterns that are generated by fibers and powders, which while not as perfect as a solid crystal, may exhibit a degree of order. This level of order can be sufficient to deduce the structure of simple molecules, or to determine the coarse features of more complicated molecules. For example, the double-helical structure of DNA was deduced from an X-ray diffraction pattern that had been generated by a fibrous sample.

Materials science

Crystallography is used by materials scientists to characterize different materials. In single crystals, the effects of the crystalline arrangement of atoms is often easy to see macroscopically, because the natural shapes of crystals reflect the atomic structure. In addition, physical properties are often controlled by crystalline defects. The understanding of crystal structures is an important prerequisite for understanding crystallographic defects. Mostly, materials do not occur as a single crystal, but in poly-crystalline form (i.e., as an aggregate of small crystals with different orientations). Because of this, the powder diffraction method, which takes diffraction patterns of polycrystalline samples with a large number of crystals, plays an important role in structural determination.

Other physical properties are also linked to crystallography. For example, the minerals in clay form small, flat, platelike structures. Clay can be easily deformed because the platelike particles can slip along each other in the plane of the plates, yet remain strongly connected in the direction perpendicular to the plates. Such mechanisms can be studied by crystallographic texture measurements.

In another example, iron transforms from a body-centered cubic (bcc) structure to a face-centered cubic (fcc) structure called austenite when it is heated. The fcc structure is a close-packed structure unlike the bcc structure; thus the volume of the iron decreases when this transformation occurs.

Crystallography is useful in phase identification. When manufacturing or using a material, it is generally desirable to know what compounds and what phases are present in the material, as their composition, structure and proportions will influence the material's properties. Each phase has a characteristic arrangement of atoms. X-ray or neutron diffraction can be used to identify which patterns are present in the material, and thus which compounds are present. Crystallography covers the enumeration of the symmetry patterns which can be formed by atoms in a crystal and for this reason is related to group theory and geometry.


X-ray crystallography is the primary method for determining the molecular conformations of biological macromolecules, particularly protein and nucleic acids such as DNA and RNA. In fact, the double-helical structure of DNA was deduced from crystallographic data. The first crystal structure of a macromolecule was solved in 1958, a three-dimensional model of the myoglobin molecule obtained by X-ray analysis.[3] The Protein Data Bank (PDB) is a freely accessible repository for the structures of proteins and other biological macromolecules. Computer programs such as RasMol, Pymol or VMD can be used to visualize biological molecular structures. Neutron crystallography is often used to help refine structures obtained by X-ray methods or to solve a specific bond; the methods are often viewed as complementary, as X-rays are sensitive to electron positions and scatter most strongly off heavy atoms, while neutrons are sensitive to nucleus positions and scatter strongly even off many light isotopes, including hydrogen and deuterium. Electron crystallography has been used to determine some protein structures, most notably membrane proteins and viral capsids.

Reference literature

The International Tables for Crystallography[4] is an eight-book series that outlines the standard notations for formatting, describing and testing crystals. The series contains books that covers analysis methods and the mathematical procedures for determining organic structure though x-ray crystallography, electron diffraction, and neutron diffraction. The International tables are focused on procedures, techniques and descriptions and do not list the physical properties of individual crystals themselves. Each book is about 1000 pages and the titles of the books are:

Vol A - Space Group Symmetry,
Vol A1 - Symmetry Relations Between Space Groups,
Vol B - Reciprocal Space,
Vol C - Mathematical, Physical, and Chemical Tables,
Vol D - Physical Properties of Crystals,
Vol E - Subperiodic Groups,
Vol F - Crystallography of Biological Macromolecues, and
Vol G - Definition and Exchange of Crystallographic Data.

Scientists of note

See also


  1. ^ UN announcement "International Year of Crystallography". 12 July 2012
  2. ^ Snigirev, A. (2007). "Two-step hard X-ray focusing combining Fresnel zone plate and single-bounce ellipsoidal capillary". Journal of Synchrotron Radiation. 14 (Pt 4): 326–330. doi:10.1107/S0909049507025174. PMID 17587657.
  3. ^ Kendrew, J. C.; Bodo, G.; Dintzis, H. M.; Parrish, R. G.; Wyckoff, H.; Phillips, D. C. (1958). "A Three-Dimensional Model of the Myoglobin Molecule Obtained by X-Ray Analysis". Nature. 181 (4610): 662–6. Bibcode:1958Natur.181..662K. doi:10.1038/181662a0. PMID 13517261.
  4. ^ Prince, E. (2006). International Tables for Crystallography Vol. C: Mathematical, Physical and Chemical Tables. Wiley. ISBN 978-1-4020-4969-9.

External links

Acta Crystallographica

Acta Crystallographica is a series of peer-reviewed scientific journals, with articles centred on crystallography, published by the International Union of Crystallography (IUCr). Originally established in 1948 as a single journal called Acta Crystallographica, there are now six independent Acta Crystallographica titles:

Acta Crystallographica Section A: Foundations and AdvancesActa Crystallographica Section B: Structural Science, Crystal Engineering and MaterialsActa Crystallographica Section C: Structural ChemistryActa Crystallographica Section D: Structural BiologyActa Crystallographica Section E: Crystallographic CommunicationsActa Crystallographica Section F: Structural Biology CommunicationsActa Crystallographica has been noted for the high quality of the papers that it produces, as well as the large impact that its papers have had on the field of crystallography. The current six journals form part of the journal portfolio of the IUCr, which is completed by the Journal of Applied Crystallography, the Journal of Synchrotron Radiation, the open-access IUCrJ and the open-access data publication IUCr Data.

Bravais lattice

In geometry and crystallography, a Bravais lattice, named after Auguste Bravais (1850), is an infinite array of discrete points generated by a set of discrete translation operations described in three dimensional space by:

where ni are any integers and ai are primitive vectors which lie in different directions (not necessarily mutually perpendicular) and span the lattice. This discrete set of vectors must be closed under vector addition and subtraction. For any choice of position vector R, the lattice looks exactly the same.

When the discrete points are atoms, ions, or polymer strings of solid matter, the Bravais lattice concept is used to formally define a crystalline arrangement and its (finite) frontiers. A crystal is made up of a periodic arrangement of one or more atoms (the basis, or motif) repeated at each lattice point. Consequently, the crystal looks the same when viewed from any equivalent lattice point, namely those separated by the translation of one unit cell.

Two Bravais lattices are often considered equivalent if they have isomorphic symmetry groups. In this sense, there are 14 possible Bravais lattices in three-dimensional space. The 14 possible symmetry groups of Bravais lattices are 14 of the 230 space groups. In the context of the space group classification, the Bravais lattices are also called Bravais classes, Bravais arithmetic classes, or Bravais flocks.

Cleavage (crystal)

Cleavage, in mineralogy, is the tendency of crystalline materials to split along definite crystallographic structural planes. These planes of relative weakness are a result of the regular locations of atoms and ions in the crystal, which create smooth repeating surfaces that are visible both in the microscope and to the naked eye.


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 not crystals, 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

In crystallography, crystal structure is a description of the ordered arrangement of atoms, ions or molecules in a crystalline material. Ordered structures occur from the intrinsic nature of the constituent particles to form symmetric patterns that repeat along the principal directions of three-dimensional space in matter.

The smallest group of particles in the material that constitutes this repeating pattern is the unit cell of the structure. The unit cell completely reflects the symmetry and structure of the entire crystal, which is built up by repetitive translation of the unit cell along its principal axes. The translation vectors define the nodes of the Bravais lattice.

The lengths of the principal axes, or edges, of the unit cell and the angles between them are the lattice constants, also called lattice parameters or cell parameters. The symmetry properties of the crystal are described by the concept of space groups. All possible symmetric arrangements of particles in three-dimensional space may be described by the 230 space groups.

The crystal structure and symmetry play a critical role in determining many physical properties, such as cleavage, electronic band structure, and optical transparency.

Crystal system

In crystallography, the terms crystal system, crystal family, and lattice system each refer to one of several classes of space groups, lattices, point groups, or crystals. Informally, two crystals are in the same crystal system if they have similar symmetries, although there are many exceptions to this.

Crystal systems, crystal families and lattice systems are similar but slightly different, and there is widespread confusion between them: in particular the trigonal crystal system is often confused with the rhombohedral lattice system, and the term "crystal system" is sometimes used to mean "lattice system" or "crystal family".

Space groups and crystals are divided into seven crystal systems according to their point groups, and into seven lattice systems according to their Bravais lattices. Five of the crystal systems are essentially the same as five of the lattice systems, but the hexagonal and trigonal crystal systems differ from the hexagonal and rhombohedral lattice systems. The six crystal families are formed by combining the hexagonal and trigonal crystal systems into one hexagonal family, in order to eliminate this confusion.

Crystal twinning

Crystal twinning occurs when two separate crystals share some of the same crystal lattice points in a symmetrical manner. The result is an intergrowth of two separate crystals in a variety of specific configurations. The surface along which the lattice points are shared in twinned crystals is called a composition surface or twin plane. Crystallographers classify twinned crystals by a number of twin laws. These twin laws are specific to the crystal system. The type of twinning can be a diagnostic tool in mineral identification. Twinning is an important mechanism for permanent shape changes in a crystal.Twinning can often be a problem in X-ray crystallography, as a twinned crystal does not produce a simple diffraction pattern.

Crystallographic point group

In crystallography, a crystallographic point group is a set of symmetry operations, like rotations or reflections, that leave a central point fixed while moving the edges and faces of the crystal to the positions of features of the same size and shape. For a periodic crystal (as opposed to a quasicrystal), the group must also maintain the three-dimensional translational symmetry that defines crystallinity. The geometric properties of a crystal must look exactly the same before and after applying any of the operations in its point group. In the classification of crystals, each point group defines a so-called (geometric) crystal class.

There are infinitely many three-dimensional point groups. However, the crystallographic restriction on the general point groups results in there being only 32 crystallographic point groups. These 32 point groups are one-and-the-same as the 32 types of morphological (external) crystalline symmetries derived in 1830 by Johann Friedrich Christian Hessel from a consideration of observed crystal forms.

The point group of a crystal determines, among other things, the directional variation of physical properties that arise from its structure, including optical properties such as birefringency, or electro-optical features such as the Pockels effect.


In geometry, a dodecahedron (Greek δωδεκάεδρον, from δώδεκα dōdeka "twelve" + ἕδρα hédra "base", "seat" or "face") is any polyhedron with twelve flat faces. The most familiar dodecahedron is the regular dodecahedron, which is a Platonic solid. There are also three regular star dodecahedra, which are constructed as stellations of the convex form. All of these have icosahedral symmetry, order 120.

The pyritohedron, a common crystal form in pyrite, is an irregular pentagonal dodecahedron, having the same topology as the regular one but pyritohedral symmetry while the tetartoid has tetrahedral symmetry. The rhombic dodecahedron, seen as a limiting case of the pyritohedron, has octahedral symmetry. The elongated dodecahedron and trapezo-rhombic dodecahedron variations, along with the rhombic dodecahedra, are space-filling. There are numerous other dodecahedra.

Hermann–Mauguin notation

In geometry, Hermann–Mauguin notation is used to represent the symmetry elements in point groups, plane groups and space groups. It is named after the German crystallographer Carl Hermann (who introduced it in 1928) and the French mineralogist Charles-Victor Mauguin (who modified it in 1931). This notation is sometimes called international notation, because it was adopted as standard by the International Tables For Crystallography since their first edition in 1935.

The Hermann–Mauguin notation, compared with the Schoenflies notation, is preferred in crystallography because it can easily be used to include translational symmetry elements, and it specifies the directions of the symmetry axes.

Hexagonal crystal family

In crystallography, the hexagonal crystal family is one of the 6 crystal families, which includes 2 crystal systems (hexagonal and trigonal) and 2 lattice systems (hexagonal and rhombohedral).

The hexagonal crystal family consists of the 12 point groups such that at least one of their space groups has the hexagonal lattice as underlying lattice, and is the union of the hexagonal crystal system and the trigonal crystal system. There are 52 space groups associated with it, which are exactly those whose Bravais lattice is either hexagonal or rhombohedral.

International Union of Crystallography

The International Union of Crystallography (IUCr) is an organisation devoted to the international promotion and coordination of the science of crystallography. The IUCr is a member of the International Council for Science (ICSU).

Monoclinic crystal system

In crystallography, the monoclinic crystal system is one of the 7 crystal systems. A crystal system is described by three vectors. In the monoclinic system, the crystal is described by vectors of unequal lengths, as in the orthorhombic system. They form a rectangular prism with a parallelogram as its base. Hence two vectors are perpendicular (meet at right angles), while the third vector meets the other two at an angle other than 90°.

Neutron diffraction

Neutron diffraction or elastic neutron scattering is the application of neutron scattering to the determination of the atomic and/or magnetic structure of a material. A sample to be examined is placed in a beam of thermal or cold neutrons to obtain a diffraction pattern that provides information of the structure of the material. The technique is similar to X-ray diffraction but due to their different scattering properties, neutrons and X-rays provide complementary information: X-Rays are suited for superficial analysis, strong x-rays from synchrotron radiation are suited for shallow depths or thin specimens, while neutrons having high penetration depth are suited for bulk samples.

Orthorhombic crystal system

In crystallography, the orthorhombic crystal system is one of the 7 crystal systems. Orthorhombic lattices result from stretching a cubic lattice along two of its orthogonal pairs by two different factors, resulting in a rectangular prism with a rectangular base (a by b) and height (c), such that a, b, and c are distinct. All three bases intersect at 90° angles, so the three lattice vectors remain mutually orthogonal.

Space group

In mathematics, physics and chemistry, a space group is the symmetry group of a configuration in space, usually in three dimensions. In three dimensions, there are 219 distinct types, or 230 if chiral copies are considered distinct. Space groups are also studied in dimensions other than 3 where they are sometimes called Bieberbach groups, and are discrete cocompact groups of isometries of an oriented Euclidean space.

In crystallography, space groups are also called the crystallographic or Fedorov groups, and represent a description of the symmetry of the crystal. A definitive source regarding 3-dimensional space groups is the International Tables for Crystallography (Hahn (2002)).

University of Madras

University of Madras is a public state university in Chennai (formerly Madras), Tamil Nadu, India. Established in 1857, it is one of the oldest universities in India. The university was incorporated by an Act of the Legislative Council of India.It is a collegiate research university and has six campuses in the city: Chepauk, Marina, Guindy, Taramani, Maduravoyal and Chetpet. It offers more than 230 courses under 87 academic departments grouped under 19 schools, covering diverse areas such as sciences, social sciences, humanities, management and medicine along with 109 affiliated colleges and 52 approved research institutions. It is one of the top Universities in India that provide distance education in various disciplines. Now the Institute of distance education, University of Madras is offering 15 Undergraduate Courses, 20 Postgraduate Courses under CBCS Pattern, 16 Diploma Courses and 12 Certificate Courses.

The National Assessment and Accreditation Council has conferred 'five star' accreditation to the university and it has been given the status of 'University with Potential for Excellence' by the University Grants Commission.University of Madras is the alma mater of two Indian Physics Nobel Laureates, CV Raman and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, five Presidents of India, including A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, and several notable mathematicians including Srinivasa Ramanujan.

X-ray crystallography

X-ray crystallography (XRC) is the experimental science determining the atomic and molecular structure of a crystal, in which the crystalline structure causes a beam of incident X-rays to diffract into many specific directions. By measuring the angles and intensities of these diffracted beams, a crystallographer can produce a three-dimensional picture of the density of electrons within the crystal. From this electron density, the mean positions of the atoms in the crystal can be determined, as well as their chemical bonds, their crystallographic disorder, and various other information.

Since many materials can form crystals—such as salts, metals, minerals, semiconductors, as well as various inorganic, organic, and biological molecules—X-ray crystallography has been fundamental in the development of many scientific fields. In its first decades of use, this method determined the size of atoms, the lengths and types of chemical bonds, and the atomic-scale differences among various materials, especially minerals and alloys. The method also revealed the structure and function of many biological molecules, including vitamins, drugs, proteins and nucleic acids such as DNA. X-ray crystallography is still the primary method for characterizing the atomic structure of new materials and in discerning materials that appear similar by other experiments. X-ray crystal structures can also account for unusual electronic or elastic properties of a material, shed light on chemical interactions and processes, or serve as the basis for designing pharmaceuticals against diseases.

In a single-crystal X-ray diffraction measurement, a crystal is mounted on a goniometer. The goniometer is used to position the crystal at selected orientations. The crystal is illuminated with a finely focused monochromatic beam of X-rays, producing a diffraction pattern of regularly spaced spots known as reflections. The two-dimensional images taken at different orientations are converted into a three-dimensional model of the density of electrons within the crystal using the mathematical method of Fourier transforms, combined with chemical data known for the sample. Poor resolution (fuzziness) or even errors may result if the crystals are too small, or not uniform enough in their internal makeup.

X-ray crystallography is related to several other methods for determining atomic structures. Similar diffraction patterns can be produced by scattering electrons or neutrons, which are likewise interpreted by Fourier transformation. If single crystals of sufficient size cannot be obtained, various other X-ray methods can be applied to obtain less detailed information; such methods include fiber diffraction, powder diffraction and (if the sample is not crystallized) small-angle X-ray scattering (SAXS).

If the material under investigation is only available in the form of nanocrystalline powders or suffers from poor crystallinity, the methods of electron crystallography can be applied for determining the atomic structure.

For all above mentioned X-ray diffraction methods, the scattering is elastic; the scattered X-rays have the same wavelength as the incoming X-ray. By contrast, inelastic X-ray scattering methods are useful in studying excitations of the sample such as plasmons, crystal-field and orbital excitations, magnons, and phonons, rather than the distribution of its atoms.

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