Scientists found out why you can bend some crystals and even tied one in a knot

Crystals are typically described as rigid, hard and inelastic. When you think of a crystal you imagine a diamond-like structure, which can be used in industrial setting, but is generally brittle. Now scientists from Australia have proved that crystals can actually be flexible – flexible enough to tie a knot.

Have you ever seen a single crystal tied in a knot? Image credit: The University of Queensland

Scientists from Queensland University of Technology and The University of Queensland set out exploring crystalline structures at atomic level, to see where their flexibility can be found. Flexible crystals may seem a bit of a gimmick, but in fact they would be extremely useful in applications in industry and technology. Research showed that single crystals can be flexible enough to be bent repeatedly and even tied in a knot. This challenges conventional thinking about these structures, which usually emphasizes their fragility, inelasticity and other properties. However, there are some crystals that can bend, but how?

Scientists noticed long ago that it is possible to grow crystals that are somewhat bendable, but no one looked into what makes a crystal flexible. Scientists grew a very thin crystal, about the thickness of a fishing line, from copper acetylacetonate. Then they bent it while observing its structure through X-ray. Researchers noticed that crystals can be bent without shattering and will return to their original position without any sustained damage when the force is released. But how such a rigid structure is capable of doing that? Jack Clegg, leader of the research team, explained: “Under strain the molecules in the crystal reversibly rotate and reorganise to allow the compression and expansion required for elasticity and still maintain the integrity of the crystal structure”.

So how this would translate to industry and technology in the future? Crystals are used in lasers and semi-conductors that can be found in virtually all electronic devices. In such application hardness and rigidity are actually desired, but also limit applications in other fields. Flexible crystalline structures would benefit aviation, spacecraft technology, various sensors and other electronic devices. Methods used in this research could also be replicated again to analyse flexibility any other crystals. Simply bending a crystal changes its optical and magnetic properties, which could be useful as well.

This also shows that our image of some material or device is not always correct. Challenging ideas embedded in definitions is always difficult, but can spawn interesting results. Flexible crystals could quickly find their way into your everyday electronics.


Source: The University of Queensland

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