In situ TEM imaging of CaCO3 nucleation reveals coexistence of direct and indirect pathways

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Science  05 Sep 2014:
Vol. 345, Issue 6201, pp. 1158-1162
DOI: 10.1126/science.1254051

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Watching nucleation pathways in calcite

The initial stage of crystallization, the formation of nuclei, is a critical process, but because of the length and time scales involved, is hard to observe. Nielsen et al. explored the crystallization of calcium carbonate, a well-studied material but one with multiple nucleation theories. Different calcium and carbonate solutions were mixed inside a fluid cell and imaged using a liquid cell inside a transmission electron microscope. Competing pathways operated during nucleation, with both the direct association of ions into nuclei from solution and the transformation of amorphous calcium carbonate into and between different crystalline polymorphs.

Science, this issue p. 1158


Mechanisms of nucleation from electrolyte solutions have been debated for more than a century. Recent discoveries of amorphous precursors and evidence for cluster aggregation and liquid-liquid separation contradict common assumptions of classical nucleation theory. Using in situ transmission electron microscopy (TEM) to explore calcium carbonate (CaCO3) nucleation in a cell that enables reagent mixing, we demonstrate that multiple nucleation pathways are simultaneously operative, including formation both directly from solution and indirectly through transformation of amorphous and crystalline precursors. However, an amorphous-to-calcite transformation is not observed. The behavior of amorphous calcium carbonate upon dissolution suggests that it encompasses a spectrum of structures, including liquids and solids. These observations of competing direct and indirect pathways are consistent with classical predictions, whereas the behavior of amorphous particles hints at an underlying commonality among recently proposed precursor-based mechanisms.

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