100 years ago, the youngest Nobel Prize winner to date announced the findings that would secure him and his father this prestigious award. These results were the first steps in a new area of research that is still widely used today - crystallography.
Crystalline solid : a solid with a regular, repeating internal structure of atoms, ions and molecules
Crystallography explores the structure of crystalline solids and allows an understanding of the internal layout of materials. This can lead to insights into why they have the properties they do; why diamond is hard, why graphite is soft and even why grass is green. This grasp of how basic structure affects properties has resulted in the ability to create and modify materials to meet specific needs - Kevlar, Teflon, rubber and so on.
The use of crystallography has opened doors in many areas of science. In biology, x-ray diffraction can be used to observe the complex structures of proteins, and has led to an in depth understanding of DNA and other biomolecules. From this, diseases and new ways to counteract them can be researched, improving the standard of healthcare in the world today.
Large scale X-ray and neutron sources have furthered our understanding of the properties of materials by using crystallography to explore their structures. The Synchrotron Radiation Source (SRS) at STFC’s Daresbury Laboratory was the first of its kind to use its beams’ ‘pencil-like’ focus to study much smaller crystals, something that is especially important in protein analysis. Today even brighter beams are available at the Diamond Light Source at Harwell Campus or the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in France.
The ISIS Facility at STFC’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory uses neutron beams to obtain complementary and often unique structural details. By analysing this with state of the art neutron detectors researchers can obtain structures in minutes that would have taken months to achieve 20 years ago.
Crystallography has advanced dramatically in recent decades and this huge leap forward in our ability to understand the fine detail of materials is playing a big role in finding new, cleaner energy solutions, and ways to combat the growing problem of environmental pollution and climate change.
(Credit: The Royal Institution)