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Crystallography at the LFK

The LfK understands itself as center of excellence at ETH for fundamental crystallographic research with the exception of the structure analysis of biological macromolecules. This field is covered excellently by the Institute for Molecular Biology and Biophysics. The research at LfK focuses on the development of novel crystallographic techniques and methods and applies them to materials of non-biological origin.

Crystallographic methods and techniques are employed more or less routinely in many fields of physics, chemistry, materials science, earth sciences, pharmacy and molecular biology. In these disciplines, it is typical that specialist problems are studied by experts of the respective fields. An earth scientist, e.g., may use X-ray powder diffractometry for phase analysis to answer a specific geological question. The focus is on the specialist problem and not on the crystallographic technique or method employed. Thus, the problem is solved intradisciplinarily, crystallography is used just as an auxiliary science.

The characteristic feature of a crystallographic institute such as the LfK, however, is its inter- and transdisciplinary definition and solution of problems. The development of novel X-ray diffraction techniques, for instance, may reach inside a neighboring discipline and allow a new kind of problem to be solved there (transdisciplinarity). The interdisciplinarity inherent to crystallography is also reflected in the education of the scientists employed at the LfK, ranging from theoretical and experimental physics, inorganic and physical chemistry, to mineralogy and crystallography itself. The change of this multidisciplinary (side-by-side) composition into an interdisciplinary (together) group, this is the crystallographic way of thinking. A physicist may be interested in the physical properties of a material, a chemist in its synthesis, reactions and chemical bonding, a materials scientist in its real structure, microstructure and properties. A crystallographer has a holistic approach, i.e. from his(her) point of view these features reflect only different aspects of the same subject called a crystal. Thus, (s)he aims to get a unified picture of the correlation between chemical composition, structure and property of a material.

Our research, at the LfK as well as at the synchrotron storage rings at ESRF and DESY and neutron sources at ILL, Saclay and PSI, concentrates on the preparation and structural characterization of novel materials using enhanced diffraction techniques in varied environ-mental conditions, the development of suitable technical equipment to study solid-state structures and phase transformations at high pressures and temperatures, and on theoretical methods to determine uncommon structures. The correspondence between structure and properties of crystals is explored by the experimental study of their elastic, thermoelastic and electromechanical properties, and modelled theoretically.

Despite the mature state of mineralogical crystallography, there is again an active program in this field at the LfK addressing frontier problems in geology and geophysics with modern technology and new crystallographic methods. Its main focus is the study of earth materials at pressure- and temperature-conditions as they occur in the deep earth. This is a field, which recently experienced an intense expansion due to new developments in pressure cell technology as well as synchrotron and neutron sources.

At present, most of the materials examined at the LfK are novel intermetallic phases with specific properties (quasicrystals, magnetically ordered structures), nanoporous solids (zeolites), low-symmetry minerals (feldspars, cordierite etc.), hydrous minerals and materials with non-linear optical properties (KTP, Ti-minerals, etc.).

An overview of the five main fields of research at the LfK is given in following diagram.


The study of Zeolites is a well established traditional research field at the LfK with considerable scientific and technological interest. It is highly regarded in the international scientific community and exemplary for the importance of long-term in-depth top research to establish an image. Another traditional research field at the LfK, the analysis of magnetic structures by neutron scattering, has become a more or less standard method and will be stopped with the retirement of the scientist working on it.

New exciting fields of research at the LfK are quasicrystals, high pressure crystallography and crystal physics. The study of aperiodic crystals, in particular quasicrystals, is a challenge to extend crystallography into higher dimensions. The field of mineral physics at the LfK is covered by the study of minerals under high pressures and temperatures and by the study of their mechanical and electromechanical properties as a function of temperature. From both, a new impetus for the interpretation of structure property relationships is expected.


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© 2014 ETH Zurich | Imprint | Disclaimer | 27 December 2005