Researchers Create Rare, Large Symmetrical Crystals

Accident Leads to Important Discovery

Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., have created large symmetrical crystals that rarely occur in nature. These crystals could be harder than conventional engineering materials. The accidental discovery was made during attempts to make superconducting nanostructures with a simple technique used to create carbon nanotubes.

Pulickel Ajayan and Ganapathiraman Ramanath, faculty members in materials science and engineering at Rensselaer, used boron carbide, a common engineering material, in the high-temperature experiment. In the ashes, they discovered large crystals with five-fold crystallographic symmetry.

Nanosize five-fold symmetrical, or icosahedral, crystals are fairly common, but these larger micron-size crystals with five-fold symmetry are rare in nature because their smaller units cannot repeat their pattern infinitely to form space-filling structures. As the nuclei of these crystals grow, the strain on the crystals increases. This causes them to revert to their common bulk crystal structures.

Ajayan believes that the inherent structure of boron carbide, which has icosahedral units in the unit cell, allows the crystals to grow to micron size without the strain. “These crystals are unique due to their high symmetry. Because of the hardness inherent to the crystal structure, we could anticipate a better material for engineering, specifically coatings. It is exciting and fulfilling to find something that is quite rare in nature, although we need to conduct further measurements to understand its potential,” Ajayan said.

The researchers, their post-doctoral research associates (Bingqing Wei and Robert Vajtai), and a graduate student (Yung Joon Jung) collaborated with colleagues at the University of Ulm in Germany.
Their research appeared as the cover story in the June 13 issue of the Journal of Physical Chemistry.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, founded in 1824, is the nation’s oldest technological university. The school offers degrees in engineering, the sciences, information technology, architecture, management, and the humanities and social sciences. Institute programs serve undergraduates, graduate students, and working professionals around the world. Rensselaer faculty are known for pre-eminence in research conducted in a wide range of research centers that are characterized by strong industry partnerships. The Institute is especially well known for its success in the transfer of technology from the laboratory to the marketplace so that new discoveries and inventions benefit human life, protect the environment, and strengthen economic development.

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