Crystallography is the science that examines the arrangement of atoms in solids - crystal is an organized grouping of atoms, or molecules. We use crystals at home, and at work; indeed crystals are vital to today?s technology. In today?s world, Crystallography has immense applications - from agriculture to development of cures for plant and animal diseases, water purification, reduce carbon emissions and development of ecological construction materials.
The world population is expected to grow from 7 billion in 2011 to 9.1 billion by 2050. The combination of rapid population growth and a diet more heavily reliant on meat and dairy products than in the past may increase the demand for food by 70% by 2050. This presents a major challenge for agriculture. Crystallography can be used to analyse soils, for instance. One serious cause of deteriorating soils is salinization, which can occur naturally or be induced by human activities. Structural studies on plant proteins can help to develop crops which are more resistant to salty environments. Crystallography can also contribute to the development of cures for plant and animal diseases, one example being research into canker in crop species like tomatoes, or the development of vaccines to prevent diseases such as avian or swine flu. In addition, crystallographic studies of bacteria are important for the production of food products derived from milk, meat, vegetables and other plants.
Crystallography can help improve water quality in poor communities, for instance, by identifying new materials which can purify water for months at a time, such as nano-sponges (tap filters) and nano tablets. It can also help to develop ecological solutions to improve sanitation.
Crystallography can develop new products which lower a home's energy consumption while curtailing carbon emissions, such as insulating materials. It can also identify new materials which reduce the cost of solar panels, windmills and batteries while making them more efficient, to reduce wastage and improve access to green technologies.
Crystallography can contribute to the development of ecological construction materials in developed and developing countries. It can also help to reduce pollution by replacing chemical solvents with 'green' inorganic solvents based on ionic liquids and CO2. It can help to reduce mining waste and related costs by contributing to methods which selectively extract only the materials required. Crystallography can tackle the growing resistance of bacteria to antibiotics as well to combat dreaded diseases.
Crystallography helps in developing new materials to be utilized in development of 'smart clothing' using Bluetooth and sensors which can gauge body functions of the wearer, including pulse, heartbeat, muscle stress and body fat and transmit messages to a wearer?s cell phone. Drug design is strongly reliant on the use of crystallography. A pharmaceutical company looking for a new drug to combat a specific bacterium or virus first needs to find a small molecule capable of blocking the active proteins (enzymes) that are involved in attacking the human cell. Knowing the precise shape of the protein allows scientists to design drug compounds that can clamp onto the ?active? sites on the protein and thereby disable their harmful activity.
Certain substances do not melt directly into a typical liquid but rather pass through a stage that flows like a liquid but has many characteristics of a solid. In this stage the substance is a liquid crystal. It maintains some of the ordered structure of a crystalline solid, which is the most common type of solid. Thin layers of chemical compounds are used in the liquid crystal displays (LCDs) of many electronics products. LCDs are commonly used in digital clocks, calculators, cell phones, portable electronic games, viewfinders for digital cameras, and flat-screen televisions and computer monitors. The liquid crystal does not produce light itself but rather draws on an external source ? such as the back light on a television ? to form images, making for low-energy consumption.
By Bharat Bhushan Srivastava
Senior Education Officer
National Science Centre, New Delhi