Crystals look stunning, and may be more “alive” than we once thought. Scientists have infused life into inanimate chemical compounds by flashing a blue-violet light that prompted them to assemble themselves into a crystal.
A team of physicists and chemists from New York University wanted to see if they could duplicate and control collective motion in a non-living object. Inspired by the way flocks of birds and schools of fish move as if they’re a single organism, they got to work.
The researchers used objects made of simple chemicals including sodium, iron, chloride, oxygen and hydrogen. They included a piece of the mineral hematite roughly the size of a single bacterium, as well. They then placed hundreds of these particles into a drop of liquid solution on a glass slide.
Then, the magic happened. The researchers exposed the solution to blue-violet light and watched as the hydrogen peroxide in the solution and the hematite began a chemical reaction that propelled the particles forward. At first, the particles moved at random. After 25 seconds, though, the limited space caused the particles to jam against each other and form a crystal. Once the crystals reached a certain size, some of the particles on the edges broke off and grew into other crystals. Once the light was switched off, though, it took only 10 seconds before the crystals dissolved.
In other tests, the researchers created a magnetic field in the liquid to see if they could steer the crystals in a particular way. The iron in the particles allowed them to control their movements.
Since the crystals were able to sense changes in their environment and move accordingly, the researchers were quick to note that they are alive in a fundamental way.
This new study could pave the way to create materials that could essentially work on their own, such as Kevlar vests that can repair themselves or a smartphone screen that can fix its own cracks.
The study was published online in the journal Science.
Want to check out the experiment? Watch the video below, originally appearing here.