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Scientists throw crystals a curve

Particles forced to assemble inside a sphere form ordered ribbons

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2:00pm, February 6, 2014

CORRALLED CRYSTALS  Inside a droplet of water between about 11 and 35 micrometers across, particles (orange) assemble into strips of crystals rather than chunks to avoid stressful bending.

Scientists don’t need a crystal ball to predict how crystalline solids grow on flat planes. But it might come in handy for curved surfaces.

By trapping particles in tiny balls of water, scientists got their first glimpse of crystal formation in rounded environments. Researchers found that the caged crystals formed arched ribbons inside the sphere rather than the compact clumps seen on flat surfaces. The findings appear in the Feb. 7 Science.

Curves offer a particular challenge for forming crystals, which are solids with molecules, atoms or other subunits assembled in ordered, symmetrical patterns. Chemical engineer Vinothan Manoharan of Harvard explains that growing crystals around a sphere “is kind of like trying to gift wrap a basketball.”

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