Crystal Formation

Crystallization is the transition from the liquid to the solid state and occurs in two stages:

1. Nucleus formation

2. Crystal growth

Atomic motion in the liquid state of a metal is almost completely disordered. Although the atoms in the liquid state do not have any definite arrangement, it is possible that some atoms at any given instant are in positions exactly corresponding to the space lattice they assume when solidified. As the energy in the liquid system decreases, the movement of the atoms decreases and the probability increases for the arrangement of a number of atoms into a characteristic lattice for that material. The energy level at which these isolated lattices form is called the freezing point.





Figure 1. Mechanism of solidification (square grids represent the unit cells)

(a) Nucleus formation

(b), (c) Growth of the crystallites

(d) Grain boundaries

Now consider a pure metal at its freezing point where both the liquid and solid states are at the same temperature. The kinetic energy of the atoms in the liquid and the solid must be the same, but there is a significant difference in potential energy. Kinetic energy is related to the speed at which the atoms move and is strictly a function of temperature. The higher the temperature, the more active are the atoms and the greater is their kinetic energy. Potential energy, on the other hand, is related to the distance between atoms. The greater the average distance between the atoms, the greater is their potential energy. The atoms in the solid are much closer together, so that solidification occurs with a release of energy. This difference in potential energy between the liquid and solid states is known as the latent heat of fusion.

When the temperature of the liquid metal has dropped sufficiently below its freezing point, stable aggregates or nuclei appear spontaneously at various points in the liquid. These nuclei, which have now solidified, act as centers for further crystallization. As cooling continues, more atoms tend to freeze, and they may attach themselves to already existing nuclei or form new nuclei of their own. Each nucleus grows by the attraction of atoms from the liquid into its space lattice. Crystal growth continues in three dimensions, the atoms attaching themselves in certain preferred directions, usually along the axes of a crystal. This gives rise to a characteristic treelike structure which is called dendrite.

Figure 2. Process of crystallization by nucleation and dendritic growth.

Since each nucleus is formed by chance, the crystal axes are pointed at random and the dendrites will grow in different directions in each crystal. Finally, as the amount of liquid decreases, the gaps between the arms of the dendrite will be filled and the growth of the dendrite will be mutually obstructed by that of its neighbors. This leads to a very irregular external shape. The crystals found in all commercial metals are commonly called grains because of this variation in external shape. The area along which crystals meet, known as the grain boundary, is a region of mismatch. The boundaries are formed by materials that are not part of a lattice, such as impurities, which do not show a specific grain pattern. This leads to a noncrystalline (amorphous) structure at the grain boundary with the atoms irregularly spaced. Since the last liquid to solidify is generally along the grain boundaries, there tends to be a higher concentration of impurity atoms in that area.

Figure 3. Grain Boundary

Figure 4. Formation of dendrites in a molten metal.

Figure 5. Dendrites observed at a magnification of 250 x.


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Last Update: September 10, 1999

By: Serdar Z. Elgun