Crystallization by particle attachment in synthetic, biogenic, and geologic environments

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Science  31 Jul 2015:
Vol. 349, Issue 6247, aaa6760
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa6760

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Growing crystals by attaching particles

Crystals grow in a number a ways, including pathways involving the assembly of other particles and multi-ion complexes. De Yoreo et al. review the mounting evidence for these nonclassical pathways from new observational and computational techniques, and the thermodynamic basis for these growth mechanisms. Developing predictive models for these crystal growth and nucleation pathways will improve materials synthesis strategies. These approaches will also improve fundamental understanding of natural processes such as biomineralization and trace element cycling in aquatic ecosystems.

Science, this issue 10.1126/science.aaa6760

Structured Abstract


Numerous lines of evidence challenge the traditional interpretations of how crystals nucleate and grow in synthetic and natural systems. In contrast to the monomer-by-monomer addition described in classical models, crystallization by addition of particles, ranging from multi-ion complexes to fully formed nanocrystals, is now recognized as a common phenomenon. This diverse set of pathways results from the complexity of both the free-energy landscapes and the reaction dynamics that govern particle formation and interaction.

Whereas experimental observations clearly demonstrate crystallization by particle attachment (CPA), many fundamental aspects remain unknown—particularly the interplay of solution structure, interfacial forces, and particle motion. Thus, a predictive description that connects molecular details to ensemble behavior is lacking. As that description develops, long-standing interpretations of crystal formation patterns in synthetic systems and natural environments must be revisited.

Here, we describe the current understanding of CPA, examine some of the nonclassical thermodynamic and dynamic mechanisms known to give rise to experimentally observed pathways, and highlight the challenges to our understanding of these mechanisms. We also explore the factors determining when particle-attachment pathways dominate growth and discuss their implications for interpreting natural crystallization and controlling nanomaterials synthesis.


CPA has been observed or inferred in a wide range of synthetic systems—including oxide, metallic, and semiconductor nanoparticles; and zeolites, organic systems, macromolecules, and common biomineral phases formed biomimetically. CPA in natural environments also occurs in geologic and biological minerals. The species identified as being responsible for growth vary widely and include multi-ion complexes, oligomeric clusters, crystalline or amorphous nanoparticles, and monomer-rich liquid droplets.

Particle-based pathways exceed the scope of classical theories, which assume that a new phase appears via monomer-by-monomer addition to an isolated cluster. Theoretical studies have attempted to identify the forces that drive CPA, as well as the thermodynamic basis for appearance of the constituent particles. However, neither a qualitative consensus nor a comprehensive theory has emerged. Nonetheless, concepts from phase transition theory and colloidal physics provide many of the basic features needed for a qualitative framework. There is a free-energy landscape across which assembly takes place and that determines the thermodynamic preference for particle structure, shape, and size distribution. Dynamic processes, including particle diffusion and relaxation, determine whether the growth process follows this preference or another, kinetically controlled pathway.


Although observations of CPA in synthetic systems are reported for diverse mineral compositions, efforts to establish the scope of CPA in natural environments have only recently begun. Particle-based mineral formation may have particular importance for biogeochemical cycling of nutrients and metals in aquatic systems, as well as for environmental remediation. CPA is poised to provide a better understanding of biomineral formation with a physical basis for the origins of some compositions, isotopic signatures, and morphologies. It may also explain enigmatic textures and patterns found in carbonate mineral deposits that record Earth’s transition from an inorganic to a biological world.

A predictive understanding of CPA, which is believed to dominate solution-based growth of important semiconductor, oxide, and metallic nanomaterials, promises advances in nanomaterials design and synthesis for diverse applications. With a mechanism-based understanding, CPA processes can be exploited to produce hierarchical structures that retain the size-dependent attributes of their nanoscale building blocks and create materials with enhanced or novel physical and chemical properties.

Major gaps in our understanding of CPA.

Particle attachment is influenced by the structure of solvent and ions at solid-solution interfaces and in confined regions of solution between solid surfaces. The details of solution and solid structure create the forces that drive particle motion. However, as the particles move, the local structure and corresponding forces change, taking the particles from a regime of long-range to short-range interactions and eventually leading to particle-attachment events.


Field and laboratory observations show that crystals commonly form by the addition and attachment of particles that range from multi-ion complexes to fully formed nanoparticles. The particles involved in these nonclassical pathways to crystallization are diverse, in contrast to classical models that consider only the addition of monomeric chemical species. We review progress toward understanding crystal growth by particle-attachment processes and show that multiple pathways result from the interplay of free-energy landscapes and reaction dynamics. Much remains unknown about the fundamental aspects, particularly the relationships between solution structure, interfacial forces, and particle motion. Developing a predictive description that connects molecular details to ensemble behavior will require revisiting long-standing interpretations of crystal formation in synthetic systems, biominerals, and patterns of mineralization in natural environments.

  • * Previously publishing as Gelsomina De Stasio.

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