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When materials reach extremely small size scales, strange things begin to happen. One of those phenomena is the formation of mesocrystals.

Despite being composed of separate individual crystals, mesocrystals come together to form a larger, fused structure that behaves as a pure, . However, these processes happen at scales far too small for the human eye to see and their creation is extremely challenging to observe.

Because of these challenges, scientists had not been able to confirm exactly how mesocrystals form.

Now new research by a Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL)-led team used advanced transmission electron microscopy (TEM) techniques to see mesocrystals form in solution in real time. What they saw runs contrary to conventional wisdom and their insights could one day help scientists design materials for and understand how minerals in soil form.

Rather than individual crystals nucleating, the step that begins crystal formation, and then randomly aggregating into mesocrystals in two unrelated steps, the researchers observed that nucleation and attachment were closely coupled in forming these highly uniform structures. The researchers reported their work in the February 18, 2021 issue of Nature.

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