Crystals are Everywhere
<span style="font-size: 1.5rem;">They are mixed into the building materials of our homes, power our smartphones and computers, decorate our bookshelves, and exist on distant planets. They can reveal the history of our world and help us prepare for the future.</span>
Crystals in Nature
The large and sparkling minerals we most commonly think of as crystals are but a small fraction of the crystals that exist in the universe. From a scientific perspective, crystals are simply atoms arranged in an orderly and repeatable pattern. These atoms can be arranged in different patterns to create various structures. Often, the structure the atoms naturally form is reflected in a crystal’s shape. Many elements, minerals, and compounds have crystalline structures, like sand, ice, sugar, chocolate, DNA, and silicon.
Crystals have been around for eons and appear throughout the known universe. Given their age, crystals are helping us understand Earth’s geological past. Unearthed zircon crystals from 4 billion years ago have given us insights into how and when the Earth’s crust formed and when plate tectonics began shaping the world as we know it.1 Zircon is an incredibly hardy crystal that remains intact through tectonic subduction or the recycling of plate crust. Throughout their existence, zircon minerals preserve the history of their formation within their inner layers. Studying these crystals and other ancient minerals will help us understand how life evolved on this planet.
Crystals in Technology
Crystals also play a vital role in our current lives and the development of our future. Crystalline minerals and elements are used in many fields, including artificial intelligence, clean energy, communications, computation, and health care. One of the most important crystals within technology is silicon.
Silicon is one of the most common elements on Earth and exists throughout our universe within space dust and planets. You likely recognize silicon in one of its various forms, like sand, porcelain, or the clear and rose-colored crystals called quartz. Silicon has revolutionized civilization in the past century, as it plays a vital role in digital technology. It is the primary component of many transistors, diodes, and semiconductors – all of which are the basic building blocks of most modern technologies. The computer or smartphone you are using not only includes chips made using silicon, but these devices also rely on silicon to power the internet you are connected to and to manage the flow of energy that charges your device.
1 Sumner, Thomas. “Remnants of Earth's Original Crust Preserve Time before Plate Tectonics.”, Science News, 8 Aug. 2019.