Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory researchers discover different way to make crystals

photo of Berkeley Lab
Sally Dowd/File
The melting of plastic test tubes introduced a different method of crystallization pursued by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. This discovery accelerated the formation of crystals, providing an innovative technique for larger manufacturing efforts.

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Researchers from UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, or Berkeley Lab, published a study in May describing a different method for growing crystals — a discovery that may have implications for future technological developments.

Published in the journal Nature Communications, the study showed that by adding trace amounts of plastic to a solution, researchers were able to create a crystalline structure in a matter of minutes.

Peter Ercius, a Berkeley Lab scientist who helped visualize the crystals, said before this discovery, nanoparticles were typically altered through “self-assembly.”

“If something self-assembles, it kind of doesn’t matter what you do,” Ercius said. “It’s just going to do its own thing.”

The preexisting technique involved attaching a block polymer to a nanoparticle and then waiting for the two to form a new substance, a process that Ercius said scientists did not have much control over.

Yiwen Qian, lead author of the study and a campus graduate student, said her team’s research shows that it is now feasible to quickly and intentionally guide crystallization.

“What we found is that it is actually possible to accelerate the whole process while maintaining the desired structures,” Qian said. “It is also possible — by properly choosing the building blocks and also the polymer additives — to get different structures.”

Qian noted that her work could be used in 3D printing. By manipulating a nanoparticle solution that rapidly crystallizes, she explained that objects with specific characteristics can be assembled.

Qian added that the speed of this process lends itself to large-scale manufacturing.

“We can do it quickly and also maintain those crystal structures,” Qian said. “That should be a big deal in terms of manufacturing because that certainly shortens the time, whether you want to do some research on it or really manufacture something.”

Ting Xu, senior author of the study and a campus professor of chemistry and materials science and engineering, said these insights into crystallization can impact different industries.

If companies want to make cars or airplanes lighter or have certain electrical properties, Xu said her group’s technique can help create the materials needed for those projects.

According to Qian, the original observations that prompted this study were “very lucky.”

Ercius said students from Xu’s lab were using plastic test tubes for their research. When the plastic began to dissolve, the students noticed crystallization.

Reflecting on the unexpected origins of the study, Xu echoed Ercius’ sentiments, noting the importance of researchers being observant and paying attention to small details.

“If it’s a surprise, don’t toss it, but pursue and understand why it happens,” Xu said.

Contact Tristan Shaughnessy at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @TristanShaughn2.