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What are Crystals? (Geology)


Crystalline Solid Made Up of Crystals

Crystals are made up of atoms arranged in an orderly repeating pattern that extends in all three spatial dimensions.  As atoms connect together they form molecules.  When molecules come together they form a crystal.

A naturally occurring solid described as crystalline means it's made up of crystals.  If a solid is crystalline it's a mineral.

The arrangement within the crystal is known as a crystal lattice.  The process of crystal formation through crystal growth is called crystallisation.  

Atoms are far too small to be seen with the naked eye, more than one million would easily fit onto a pinhead.  The late Professor Stephen Hawkings once said, "approximately fourteen billion years ago the entire universe would have been the size of a single atom." 

The following diagram demonstrates an orderly repeating arrangement of atoms in a crystalline solid. example of an orderly repeating arrangement of atoms

To explain the way atoms come together to form a crystal imagine a full box of eggs.  All the eggs are neatly arranged and evenly spaced out in perfect rows and columns.  This could be described as an orderly repeating arrangement of eggs.  The size of the formation is dependant on the size of the box.

Likewise the size of a crystal is dependant on how much time it has to grow and the amount of space that's available.

Crystals grow when a liquid cools and solidifies.  The longer the cooling process the more time they have to grow.  They can also form from the precipitation from water.  Water can only hold a certain amount of dissolved minerals and salts.  As the quantity of the mineral increases it's no longer possible for it to remain dissolved in the water.  The particles then come together to form a solid.

Obsidian which is volcanic glass is a non crystalline or amorphous solid.  This is because the molten lava cooled so fast there wasn't time for crystals to grow.

Granite on the other hand is known for its large crystals.  This is because the magma from which this rock forms cooled very slowly deep beneath the surface for millions of years.

Crystals have smooth surfaces known as faces and straight edges.  Whilst some are large enough to be seen with the naked eye an example being quartz, others are microscopic.

Some crystals are so small it's even difficult to see them under high magnification.  Irrespective of size, the one thing that remains unchanged is crystals within the same mineral varieties have exactly the same crystal structure.  Should this change the result will be a different mineral.

cluster of colourless quartz crystals

The smallest piece of quartz is made up of billions of atoms combined to form a crystal lattice.  With the atoms coming together in an orderly repeating arrangement they form a crystalline solid.

Quartz is made up of silicon and oxygen atoms.  An atom is the smallest unit of matter that forms a chemical element.

When sodium and chlorine atoms join together in an orderly repeating pattern they form molecules. The molecules then stack together to form a crystal. Once combined the crystals form a chemical compound called sodium chloride. This mineral called halite is better known as salt.

Another type of crystal is a snowflake.  Snow is almost pure crystallised water.

The repeating three dimensional pattern of the atoms defines the external shape of the crystal.  This is seen as flat faces arranged in geometric forms.  Geometric means patterns made up of straight lines and shapes such as squares, triangles or rectangles.

blue fluorite crystals on quartz

There are seven different arrangements of crystal symmetry and all minerals belong to one of these groups.  All crystals are symmetrical because they're built up of repeating geometric patterns.

When the arrangement of atoms within a naturally occuring solid do not form an orderly repeating pattern it will not be crystalline.  Solids void of any significant crystal structure are known as amorphous solids or mineraloids.  Examples include obsidian, shungite, opal, moldavite and pearl.

Article Photos

Our first photo is a cluster of quartz crystals. Courtesy of Stan Celestian.  The second is cube-shaped fluorite crystals on quartz.  Courtesy of Ron Wolf.  Both photos are clickable and redirect to the original non-compressed photo.  

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