New technique reveals how crystals form on surfaces

The process of crystallization, in which atoms or molecules line up in orderly arrays like soldiers in formation, is the basis for many of the materials that define modern life, including the silicon in microchips and solar cells. But while many useful applications for crystals involve their growth on solid surfaces (rather than in solution), there has been a dearth of good tools for studying this type of growth.

Professor Robert MacFarlane has a new paper published in Nature Materials that reveals details of the process of crystallization that have been difficult to observe previously. A team of researchers at MIT and Draper has found a way to reproduce the growth of crystals on surfaces, but at a larger scale that makes the process much easier to study and analyze. Rather than assembling these crystals from actual atoms, the key to making the process easy to observe and quantify was the use of “programmable atom equivalents,” or PAEs.