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FEATURE ARTICLE

The Formation of Snow Crystals

Subtle molecular processes govern the growth of a remarkable variety of elaborate ice structures

Kenneth Libbrecht

Figure 1. Although the word Click to Enlarge Image

It is in fact true that no two snowflakes are alike. These single crystals of ice are so affected by subtle changes in temperature, water saturation, mineral content and wind speed that it’s nigh impossible that two would experience the exact same conditions during their growth. Indeed, just a few degrees' temperature shift can alter a snowflake from the flowery form that we typically think of into a needle or a cluster of bullet-shaped columns. Libbrecht details many of these forms and how they arise, but also how much remains unknown about the elusive shapes. One of his newest theories relates to the fact that the very thin edge of a snowflake becomes highly unstable, leading to unexpected growth. Libbrecht's work can be applied to the growth of crystals used for semiconductors, as well as other nanoscale processes of material formation.


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