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How do crystals work? - Graham Baird

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Many crystals have signature shapes— like the cascade of pointed quartz or a pile of galena cubes. Every crystal’s atoms have a defining feature: their organized, repeating pattern. The pattern isn't restricted to minerals- sand, ice, metals and DNA also have crystalline structures. So what causes them to grow into these shapes again and again? Graham Baird dives into the unique properties of crystals.

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TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Graham Baird
  • Director Franz Palomares
  • Narrator Addison Anderson
  • Music Carlos Palomares
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Associate Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Associate Editorial Producer Elizabeth Cox
  • Script Editor Emma Bryce , Alex Gendler
  • Fact-checker Brian Gutierrez
  • See more
Additional Resources for you to Explore
Many materials naturally want to grow as crystals with atoms arranged in an organized, repeating fashion. This is because generally as a solid grow, it takes less energy to organize the atoms in this way than growing a solid with atoms in a random pattern.

Anyone can grow crystals through the evaporation and/or cooling of either a salt-water or a sugar-water solution. Amazingly, from the perspective of the crystal, there’s no difference between the growth of the salt or sugar crystals, the crystals highlighted in this TED-Ed lesson, or how the crystals grow in any rock. All crystals grow the same way. This webpage shows a number of movies of crystals growing and other supplemental information regarding crystals. Click here to learn more!

Not only are crystals a common way for solids to grow, but crystals have a number of important properties that we use in our everyday lives. For one, many crystals polarize light, which means that light interacts with such crystals in fascinating and beautiful ways. This is demonstrated by looking at a thin slice of a crystalline rock with a polarizing microscope, shown here. The change in colors as the rock is rotated is caused by how polarized light interacts with the crystals in the rock. This behavior is utilized in liquid crystal displays found in watches, calculators, and many flat panel televisions and computer monitors.

Computer chips and the light emitting diodes (LED) used in some flat-panel displays and lights all use crystalline semiconductors. Crystals are also used to generate lasers and are used in solar panels. Graphene, the next “supermaterial,” is also crystalline. Graphene is a single crystalline sheets of carbon atoms and is poised to revolutionize how electronics can be used and how society builds cars, bicycles, buildings, and space ships, just to name a few. Simply put, society relies heavily on the many unusual properties of crystals and major future technological advances will likely be driven by crystals.



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About TED-Ed Animations

TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Graham Baird
  • Director Franz Palomares
  • Narrator Addison Anderson
  • Music Carlos Palomares
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Associate Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Associate Editorial Producer Elizabeth Cox
  • Script Editor Emma Bryce , Alex Gendler
  • Fact-checker Brian Gutierrez
  • See more