Crytalline structure

What is a crystal?

Some characteristics of crystals.
The word crystal brings to mind sparkling chandeliers, elegant wine goblets, and shiny jewels. But, as is the case with the word mineral, geologists have a more precise definition. A crystal is a single, continuous (that is, uninterrupted) piece of a crystalline solid, typically bounded by flat surfaces, called crystal faces, that grow naturally as the mineral forms. The word comes from the Greek krystallos, meaning ice. Many crystals have beautiful shapes that look like they belong in the pages of a geometry book. The angle between two adjacent crystal faces of one specimen is identical to the angle between the corresponding faces of another specimen. For example, a perfectly formed quartz crystal looks like an obelisk (a and b in figure above); the angle between the faces of the columnar part of a quartz crystal is always exactly 120°. This rule, discovered by one of the first geologists, Nicolas Steno (1638– 1686) of Denmark, holds regardless of whether the whole crystal is big or small and regardless of whether all of the faces are the same size. Crystals come in a great variety of shapes, including cubes, trapezoids, pyramids, octahedrons, hexagonal columns, blades, needles, columns, and obelisks (c in figure above).
Because crystals have a regular geometric form, people have always considered them to be special, perhaps even a source of magical powers. For example, shamans of some cultures relied on talismans or amulets made of crystals, which supposedly brought power to their wearer or warded off evil spirits. Scientists have concluded, however, that crystals have no effect on health or mood. For millennia, crystals have inspired awe because of the way they sparkle, but such behavior is simply a consequence of how crystal structures interact with light.

Looking inside crystals

Patterns and symmetry in minerals.
What makes crystals have regular geometric forms? This problem was the focus of study for centuries. An answer finally came from the work of a German physicist, Max von Laue, in 1912. He showed that an X-ray beam passing through a crystal breaks up into many tiny beams to create a pattern of dots on a screen (a in figure above). Physicists refer to this phenomenon as diffraction; it occurs when waves interact with regularly spaced objects whose spacing is close to the wavelength of the waves you can see diffraction of ocean waves when they pass through gaps in a seawall. Von Laue concluded that, for a crystal to cause diffraction, atoms within it must be regularly spaced and the spacing must be comparable to the wavelength of X-rays. Eventually, Von Laue and others learned how to use X-ray diffraction patterns as a basis for defining the specific arrangement of atoms in crystals. This arrangement defines the crystal structure of a mineral.
If you’ve ever examined wallpaper, you’ve seen an example of a pattern. Crystal structures contain one of nature’s most spectacular examples of such a pattern (b in figure above). In crystals, the pattern is defined by the regular spacing of atoms and, if the crystal contains more than one element, by the regular alternation of atoms (c in figure above). (Mineralogists refer to a 3-D geometry of points representing this pattern as a lattice.) The pattern of atoms in a crystal may control the shape of a crystal. For example, if atoms in a crystal pack into the shape of a cube, the crystal may have faces that intersect at 90° angles galena  (PbS) and halite (NaCl) have such a cubic shape. Because of the pattern of atoms in a crystal structure, the structure has symmetry, meaning that the shape of one part of the structure is the mirror image of the shape of a neighboring part. For example, if you were to cut a halite crystal or a water crystal (snowflake) in half, and place the half against a mirror, it would look whole again (d in figure above).
The nature of crystalline structure in minerals. The arrangement of atoms can be portrayed by a ball and stick model, or by a packed ball model.
To illustrate crystal structures, we look at a few examples. Halite (rock salt) consists of oppositely charged ions that stick together because opposite charges attract. In halite, six chloride (Cl–) ions surround each sodium (Na+) ion, producing an overall arrangement of atoms that defines the shape of a cube (a and b in figure above). Diamond, by contrast, is a mineral made entirely of carbon. In diamond, each atom bonds to four neighbors arranged in the form of a tetrahedron; some naturally formed diamond crystals have the shape of a double tetrahedron (c in figure above). Graphite, another mineral composed entirely of carbon, behaves very differently from diamond. In contrast to diamond, graphite is so soft that we use it as the “lead” in a pencil; when a pencil moves across paper, tiny flakes of graphite peel off the pencil point and adhere to the paper.  This behaviour occurs because the carbon atoms in graphite  are not arranged in tetrahedra, but rather occur in sheets (d in figure above). The sheets are bonded to each other by weak bonds and thus can separate from each other easily. Of note, two different minerals (such as diamond and graphite) that have the same composition but different crystal structures are polymorphs.

The formation and destruction of minerals

New mineral crystals can form in five ways. First, they can form by the solidification of a melt, meaning the freezing of a liquid to form a solid. For example, ice crystals, a type of mineral, are made by solidifying water, and many different minerals form by solidifying molten rock. Second, they can form by precipitation from a solution, meaning that atoms, molecules, or ions dissolved in water bond together and separate out of the water. Salt crystals, for example, precipitate when you evaporate salt water. Third, they can form by solid-state diffusion, the movement of atoms or ions through a solid to arrange into a new crystal structure, a process that takes place very slowly. For example, garnets  grow by diffusion in solid rock. Fourth, minerals can form at interfaces between the physical and biological components of the Earth System by a process called biomineralization. This occurs when living organisms cause minerals to precipitate either within or on their bodies, or immediately adjacent to their bodies. For example, clams and other shelled organisms extract ions from water to produce mineral shells. Fifth, minerals can precipitate directly from a gas. This process typically occurs around volcanic vents or around geysers, for at such locations volcanic gases or steam enter the atmosphere and cool abruptly. Some of the bright yellow sulphur deposits found in volcanic regions form in this way.
The growth of crystals.
The first step in forming a crystal is the chance formation of a seed, or an extremely small crystal (a in figure above). Once the seed exists, other atoms in the surrounding material attach themselves to the face of the seed. As the crystal grows, crystal faces move outward but maintain the same orientation (b in figure above). The youngest part of the crystal is at its outer edge.
In the case of crystals formed by the solidification of a melt, atoms begin to attach to the seed when the melt becomes so cool that thermal vibrations can no longer break apart the attraction between the seed and the atoms in the melt. Crystals formed by precipitation from a solution develop when the solution becomes saturated, meaning the number of dissolved ions per unit volume of solution becomes so great that they can get close enough to each other to bond together.
As crystals grow, they develop their particular crystal shape, based on the geometry of their internal structure. The shape is defined by the relative dimensions of the crystal (needle- like, sheet-like, etc.) and the angles between crystal faces. Typically, the growth of minerals is restricted in one or more directions, because existing crystals act as obstacles. In such cases, minerals grow to fill the space that is available, and their shape is controlled by the shape of their surroundings. Minerals without well-formed crystal faces are anhedral grains (c in figure above). If a mineral’s growth is unimpeded so that it displays well-formed crystal faces, then it is a euhedral crystal. The surface crystals of a geode, a mineral-lined cavity in rock, may be euhedral (d in figure above).
A mineral can be destroyed by melting, dissolving, or some other chemical reaction. Melting involves heating a mineral to a temperature at which thermal vibration of the atoms or ions in the lattice break the chemical bonds holding them to the lattice. The atoms or ions then separate, either individually or in small groups, to move around again freely. Dissolution occurs when you immerse a mineral in a solvent, such as water. Atoms or ions then separate from the crystal face and are surrounded by solvent molecules. Chemical reactions can destroy a mineral when it comes in contact with reactive materials. For example, iron-bearing minerals react with air and water to form rust. The action of microbes in the environment can also destroy minerals. In effect, some microbes can “eat” certain minerals; the microbes use the energy stored in the chemical bonds that hold the atoms of the mineral together as their source of energy for metabolism.
Credits: Stephen Marshak (Essentials of Geology)