X-ray crystallography is a way to see the three-dimensional structure of a molecule. The electron cloud of an atom bends the X-rays slightly. This makes a "picture" of the molecule that can be seen on a screen. It can be used for both organic and inorganic molecules. The sample is not destroyed in the process.
The technique was jointly invented by Sir William Bragg (1862–1942) and his son Sir Lawrence Bragg (1890–1971). They won the Nobel Prize in Physics for 1915. Lawrence Bragg is the youngest to be made a Nobel Laureate. He was the Director of the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge University, when the discovery of the structure of DNA was made by James D. Watson , Francis Crick , Maurice Wilkins, and Rosalind Franklin in February 1953.
The oldest method of X-ray crystallography is X-ray diffraction (XRD). X-rays are fired at a single crystal and the way they are scattered produces a pattern. These patterns are used to work out the arrangement of atoms inside the crystal.
X-ray analysis of crystals
Crystals are regular arrays of atoms, meaning that the atoms are repeat over and over in all three dimensions. X-rays are waves of electromagnetic radiation. When X-rays meet atoms, the electrons in the atoms cause the X-rays to scatter in all directions. Because the X-rays are emitted in all directions, an X-ray striking an electron produces secondary spherical waves emanating from the electron. The electron is known as the scatterer. A regular array of scatterers (here the repeating pattern of atoms in the crystal) produces a regular array of spherical waves. Although these waves cancel one another out in most directions, they add up in a few specific directions, determined by Bragg's law:
Here d is the spacing between diffracting planes, is the incident angle, n is any integer, and λ is the wavelength of the beam. These specific directions appear as spots on the diffraction pattern called reflections. Thus, X-ray diffraction results from an electromagnetic wave (the X-ray) hitting a regular array of scatterers (the repeating arrangement of atoms within the crystal).
Images for kids
As shown by X-ray crystallography, the hexagonal symmetry of snowflakes results from the tetrahedral arrangement of hydrogen bonds about each water molecule. The water molecules are arranged similarly to the silicon atoms in the tridymite polymorph of SiO2. The resulting crystal structure has hexagonal symmetry when viewed along a principal axis.
Although diamonds (top left) and graphite (top right) are identical in chemical composition—being both pure carbon—X-ray crystallography revealed the arrangement of their atoms (bottom) accounts for their different properties. In diamond, the carbon atoms are arranged tetrahedrally and held together by single covalent bonds, making it strong in all directions. By contrast, graphite is composed of stacked sheets. Within the sheet, the bonding is covalent and has hexagonal symmetry, but there are no covalent bonds between the sheets, making graphite easy to cleave into flakes.
Ribbon diagram of the structure of myoglobin, showing colored alpha helices. Such proteins are long, linear molecules with thousands of atoms; yet the relative position of each atom has been determined with sub-atomic resolution by X-ray crystallography. Since it is difficult to visualize all the atoms at once, the ribbon shows the rough path of the protein's backbone from its N-terminus (blue) to its C-terminus (red).
A protein crystal seen under a microscope. Crystals used in X-ray crystallography may be smaller than a millimeter across.
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