Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Crystals So Flexible They Can Be Tied in a Knot

Credit: Leigh Prather

Credit: Leigh Prather

By John McMurtrie & Jack Clegg

The ordered structure of most crystals makes them brittle and inflexible, but the discovery of crystals with elastic properties opens a range of new uses in emerging technologies.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

Crystals are beautiful objects. They have been admired for millennia because of their intriguing properties, and in many cultures are thought to be imbued with magical properties. Crystals, do however, underpin a wide variety of modern technologies, including semi-conductors and lasers, which are used in everything from mobile phones to space-shuttles.

The large crystals that we encounter in our natural environment – like quartz, salt and gemstones – are intriguing because of their clean faces, sharp corners and symmetrical features. Often it is how crystals interact with light that captures our attention. Crystals are translucent and can be highly coloured. Light also reflects off the faces of crystals, causing them to glint and gleam.

As early as the 17th century, scientists used these properties to start to understand the behaviour of light and answer fundamental questions of physics. Newton used prismatic crystals to split and recombine white light into its coloured constituents, while Danish scientist Rasmus Bartholin used calcite crystals to discover how light could be polarised – the technology that underpins 3D movies.

As well as diffracting and refracting lights, crystals also diffract X-rays and neutrons, which allows us to use these forms of radiation to probe the atomic structure of materials. The discovery of this led to the 1915 Nobel...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.