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Crystallization is the (natural or artificial) process of formation of solid crystals precipitating from a solution, melt or more rarely deposited directly from a gas. Crystallization is also a chemical solid-liquid separation technique, in which mass transfer of a solute from the liquid solution to a pure solid crystalline phase occurs.

Frost crystallization on a shrub.



The crystallization process consists of two major events, nucleation and crystal growth. Nucleation is the step where the solute molecules dispersed in the solvent start to gather into clusters, on the nanometer scale (elevating solute concentration in a small region), that becomes stable under the current operating conditions. These stable clusters constitute the nuclei. However when the clusters are not stable, they redissolve. Therefore, the clusters need to reach a critical size in order to become stable nuclei. Such critical size is dictated by the operating conditions (temperature, supersaturation, etc.). It is at the stage of nucleation that the atoms arrange in a defined and periodic manner that defines the crystal structure — note that "crystal structure" is a special term that refers to the relative arrangement of the atoms, not the macroscopic properties of the crystal (size and shape), although those are a result of the internal crystal structure?

The crystal growth is the subsequent growth of the nuclei that succeed in achieving the critical cluster size. Nucleation and growth continue to occur simultaneously while the supersaturation exists. Supersaturation is the driving force of the crystallization, hence the rate of nucleation and growth is driven by the existing supersaturation in the solution. Depending upon the conditions, either nucleation or growth may be predominant over the other, and as a result, crystals with different sizes and shapes are obtained (control of crystal size and shape constitutes one of the main challenges in industrial manufacturing, such as for pharmaceuticals). Once the supersaturation is exhausted, the solid-liquid system reaches equilibrium and the crystallization is complete, unless the operating conditions are modified from equilibrium so as to supersaturate the solution again.

Many compounds have the ability to crystallize with different crystal structures, a phenomenon called polymorphism. Each polymorph is in fact a different thermodynamic solid state and crystal polymorphs of the same compound exhibit different physical properties, such as dissolution rate, shape (angles between facets and facet growth rates), melting point, etc. For this reason, polymorphism is of major importance in industrial manufacture of crystalline products.

Crystallization in nature

Snow flakes are a very well known example, where subtle differences in crystal growth conditions result in different geometries.

There are many examples of natural process that involve crystallization.

Geological time scale process examples include:

Usual time scale process examples include:

Artificial methods

For crystallization (see also recrystallization) to occur from a solution it must be supersaturated. This means that the solution has to contain more solute entities (molecules or ions) dissolved than it would contain under the equilibrium (saturated solution). This can be achieved by various methods, with 1) solution cooling, 2) addition of a second solvent to reduce the solubility of the solute (technique known as antisolvent or drown-out), 3) chemical reaction and 4) change in pH being the most common methods used in industrial practice. Other methods, such as solvent evaporation, can also be used. The spherical crystallization has some advantages (flowability, bioavailability, ...) for the formulation of pharmaceutical drugs (see ref Nocent & al., 2001)



There are two major groups of applications for the artificial crystallization process: crystal production and purification.

Crystal production

From a material industry perspective:

Massive production examples:


Used to improve (obtaining very pure substance) and/or verify their purity.

Crystallization separates a product from a liquid feedstream, often in extremely pure form, by cooling the feedstream or adding precipitants which lower the solubility of the desired product so that it forms crystals.

Well formed crystals are expected to be pure because each molecule or ion must fit perfectly into the lattice as it leaves the solution. Impurities would normally not fit as well in the lattice, and thus remain in solution preferentially. Hence, molecular recognition is the principle of purification in crystallization. However, there are instances when impurities incorporate into the lattice, hence, decreasing the level of purity of the final crystal product. Also, in some cases, the solvent may incorporate into the lattice forming a solvate. In addition, the solvent may be 'trapped' (in liquid state) within the crystal formed, and this phenomenon is known as inclusion.

Thermodynamic view

Low-temperature SEM magnification series for a snow crystal. The crystals are captured, stored, and sputter coated with platinum at cryo-temperatures for imaging.

The nature of a crystallization process is governed by both thermodynamic and kinetic factors, which can make it highly variable and difficult to control. Factors such as impurity level, mixing regime, vessel design, and cooling profile can have a major impact on the size, number, and shape of crystals produced.

Now put yourself in the place of a molecule within a pure and perfect crystal, being heated by an external source. At some sharply defined temperature, a bell rings, you must leave your neighbours, and the complicated architecture of the crystal collapses to that of a liquid. Textbook thermodynamics says that melting occurs because the entropy, S, gain in your system by spatial randomization of the molecules has overcome the enthalpy, H, loss due to breaking the crystal packing forces:

T(SliquidSsolid) > HliquidHsolid

Gliquid < Gsolid

This rule suffers no exceptions when the temperature is rising. By the same token, on cooling the melt, at the very same temperature the bell should ring again, and molecules should click back into the very same crystalline form. The entropy decrease due to the ordering of molecules within the system is overcompensated by the thermal randomization of the surroundings, due to the release of the heat of fusion; the entropy of the universe increases.

But liquids that behave in this way on cooling are the exception rather than the rule; in spite of the second principle of thermodynamics, crystallization usually occurs at lower temperatures (supercooling). This can only mean that a crystal is more easily destroyed than it is formed. Similarly, it is usually much easier to dissolve a perfect crystal in a solvent than to grow again a good crystal from the resulting solution. The nucleation and growth of a crystal are under kinetic, rather than thermodynamic, control.

Equipment for crystallization

1. Tank crystallizers. Tank crystallization is an old method still used in some specialized cases. Saturated solutions, in tank crystallization, are allowed to cool in open tanks. After a period of time the mother liquid is drained and the crystals removed. Nucleation and size of crystals are difficult to control. Typically, labor costs are very high.

2. Scraped surface crystallizers. One type of scraped surface crystallizer is the Swenson-Walker crystallizer, which consists of an open trough 0.6 m wide with a semicircular bottom having a cooling jacket outside. A slow-speed spiral agitator rotates and suspends the growing crystals on turning. The blades pass close to the wall and break off any deposits of crystals on the cooled wall. The product generally has a somewhat wide crystal-size distribution.

3. Double-pipe scraped surface crystallizer. Also called a votator, this type of crystallizer is used in crystallizing ice cream and plasticizing margarine. Cooling water passes in the annular space. An internal agitator is fitted with spring-loaded scrapers that wipe the wall and provide good heat-transfer coefficients.

4. Circulating-liquid evaporator-crystallizer. Also called Oslo crystallizer. Here supersaturation is reached by evaporation. The circulating liquid is drawn by the screw pump down inside the tube side of the condensing stream heater. The heated liquid then flows into the vapor space, where flash evaporation occurs, giving some supersaturation.The vapor leaving is condensed. The supersaturated liquid flows down the downflow tube and then up through the bed of fluidized and agitated crystals, which are growing in size. The leaving saturated liquid then goes back as a recycle stream to the heater, where it is joined by the entering fluid. The larger crystals settle out and slurry of crystals and mother liquid is withdrawn as a product.

5. Circulating-magma vacuum crystallizer. The magma or suspension of crystals is circulated out of the main body through a circulating pipe by a screw pump. The magma flows though a heater, where its temperature is raised 2-6 K. The heated liquor then mixes with body slurry and boiling occurs at the liquid surface. This causes supersaturation in the swirling liquid near the surface, which deposits in the swirling suspended crystals until they leave again via the circulating pipe. The vapors leave through the top. A steam-jet ejector provides vacuum.

6. Continuous oscillatory baffled crystallizer (COBC). The COBC is a tubular baffled crystallizer that offers plug flow under laminar flow conditions (low flow rates) with superior heat transfer coefficient, allowing controlled cooling profiles, e.g. linear, parabolic, discontinued, step-wise or any type, to be achieved. This gives much better control over crystal size, morphology and consistent crystal products. For further information see oscillatory baffled reactor.

See also



  • Glynn P.D. and Reardon E.J. (1990) "Solid-solution aqueous-solution equilibria: thermodynamic theory and representation". Amer. J. Sci. 290, 164-201.
  • Geankoplis, C.J. (2003) "Transport Processes and Separation Process Principles". 4th Ed. Prentice-Hall Inc.
  • Stanley SJ. (2006) Tomographic imaging during reactive precipitation: mixing with chemical reaction, Chemical Engineering Science, 61 (23), pp 7850-7863
  • Nocent M, Bertocchi L, Espitalier F. & al. (2001) "Definition of a solvent system for spherical crystallization of salbutamol sulfate by quasi-emulsion solvent diffusion (QESD) method", Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences, 90, 10, 1620-1627.

External links


1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

CRYSTALLIZATION, the art of obtaining a substance in the form of crystals; it is an important process in chemistry since it permits the purification of a substance, or the separation of the constituents of a mixture. Generally a substance is more soluble in a solvent at a high temperature than at a low, and consequently, if a boiling concentrated solution be allowed to cool, the substance will separate in virtue of the diminished solubility, and the slower the cooling the larger and more perfect will be the crystals formed. If, as sometimes appears, such a solution refuses to crystallize, the expedient of inoculating the solution with a minute crystal of the same substance, or with a similar substance, may be adopted; shaking the solution, or the addition of a drop of another solvent, may also occasion the desired result. "Fractional crystallization" consists in repeatedly crystallizing a salt so as to separate the substances of different solubilities. Examples are especially presented in the study of the rare-earths. Other conditions under which crystals are formed are given in the article Crystallography.

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Simple English

File:Snow crystallization in Akureyri 2005-02-26
Snow that is going through crystallization.

Crystallization is the way that atoms gather to make tightly bonded or connected groups.

Crystallization is a technique to separate solid from liquids. It is the process of formation of solid crystals from a homogeneous solution. For crystallization to occur the solution at hand ought to be supersaturated. Put simply, the solution should contain more solute molecules than it would under ordinary conditions. This can be achieved by various methods—solvent evaporation, cooling, chemical reaction, 'drowning' being the most common ones used in industrial practice.

To make things clear we can use a simple example. We take a bowl of water to which we add sugar crystals. We keep adding sugar to it until we reach a stage when no more crystals can be dissolved. This solution so obtained is a saturated one. It is interesting to note that we can dissolve more crystals to this particular saturated solution by heating it (since solubility of solutes increases with increase in temperature, although exceptional cases occur). This elevation in temperature causes more sugar crystals to dissolve in it (thus forming a supersaturated solution), but when the temperature of the solution is allowed to attain equilibrium with the surroundings, the solubility of the solute decreases (because the temperature of the solution has decreased) and the 'excess' sugar so added crystallizes out. This process essentially illustrates the simplest of supersaturation techniques. 'Drowning' is the addition of a nonsolvent in the solution that decreases the solubility of the solid. Alternatively, chemical reactions can also be used to decrease the solubility of the solid in the solvent, thus working towards supersaturation.

Crystallization can be divided into stages - primary nucleation is the first. It is the growth of a new crystal, which in turn causes secondary nucleation - the final stage (if removal of the crystals is not an issue). Secondary nucleation requires existing crystals to perpetuate crystal growth. In our sugar example, we had obtained such nuclei when the 'excess' sugar had just about crystallized out assisting further crystal formation. Secondary nucleation is the main stage in crystallization for this is what causes the 'mass production' of crystals.


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