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Table salt (sodium chloride) is used in our daily life but chances are you don’t know how this structure was determined. It was with the help of X-ray crystallography that the position of sodium and chloride ions was revealed.
The beginning of X-rays
It all started with Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen’s discovery of X-rays in 1895, for which he was awarded the first Nobel Prize in Physics, in 1901. Eleven years later, Max von Laue and his coworkers showed how X-rays interact with a crystal and are diffracted in specific directions. Following this astounding experiment, William Henry Bragg and William Lawrence Bragg took a step forward in 1913, mapping the position of atoms within a crystal and thus, helping in the visualisation of the 3D picture at atomic level. In 1915, the father and son duo were rewarded with the Nobel Prize in Physics.
Science in Crystals
The birth of crystallography has paved the way to amazing findings in different fields of science. Over the 100 years, 45 scientists have been awarded the Nobel Prize for research related to crystallography. Some of them are illustrated in the picture below (click on the image to enlarge):
This video shows how X-ray crystallography is one of the greatest innovations of the 21st century:
Crystallography has a wide range of applications from drug design, foodstuffs to computing, mining, aeronautics and space sciences. To celebrate its vital role in our lives, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the International Union of Crystallography (IUCr) joined forces, proclaiming 2014 as the International Year of Crystallography (IYCr). One of the main goals of IYCr was to raise global awareness about the importance of crystallography and strengthen international collaboration.
Challenges of IYCr
IYCr was launched on 20th January 2014 at UNESCO in Paris, France. The opening ceremony was attended by 800 people across the world including representatives of governments, academia and he private sector. The programme focused mainly on the role of crystallography for technological advances. Crystallography is essential as we move towards sustainable development to build greener societies and economies. The teaching and applications of crystallography will also help in tackling the food, water, energy and health challenges.
Crystallography for sustainable development
- By 2050, the demand for food is expected to increase by 70%, due to the growing world population. Crystallography can be used to help develop cures for plants and animals, to study bacteria involved in the production of food products and to study plant proteins to make them more resistant to the changing environmental conditions.
- Nanosponges and nanotablets are expected to bring clean water to all in developing countries, and crystallography is an important tool for the identification of these new materials.
- As the demand for energy is increasing, crystallography can help in the design of new and sustainable materials which will lower energy consumption, limit carbon dioxide emissions and improve access to green technologies. LCD (liquid crystal display), for instance, is being used for flat screens, thanks to crystallography.
- With HIV/AIDs, dengue fever, malaria and Ebola still ravaging some countries, crystallography is playing an important role in improving people’s health as it is helping in the study of growing resistance of bacteria and in the manufacture of antibiotics. If, for instance, the structure of insulin had not been determined by crystallography, it would be impossible to synthesis it.
Different types of activities were organised across the globe to celebrate IYCr such as workshops, exhibitions, conferences and competitions at all levels including ways of growing crystals. On 23rd-24th April 2015, the last event, the ‘IYCr legacy’ will be held in Morocco, in lieu of a ‘closing’ ceremony. After a crystal clear picture of IYCr, the torch is now passed on to the International Year of Light (IYL).
Looking forward to a bright IYL 2015!