Campus News

UB chemist’s national crystal contest reaches Williamsville teens

A crystal growing in a beaker.

An octahedral crystal dangles in a clear solution of aluminum potassium sulfate (alum), a nontoxic chemical used in water purification. Photo: Douglas Levere

By CHARLOTTE HSU

Published November 27, 2019

“If you touch it, it grows weird.”
Nina Pace, student
Williamsville South High School

Snow, ice and winter lights aren’t the only things that sparkle during the holiday season in Western New York.

At this time each year, students in Jeff Yap’s science class at Williamsville South High School also get to work growing crystals for a national competition founded by a UB chemist. Over five weeks starting in October, the teens cultivate their entries, growing the crystals in beakers filled with a solution of aluminum potassium sulfate (alum), a nontoxic chemical used in water purification.

On the morning of Nov. 20, a small group of Yap’s students gathered around a rolling cart holding about a dozen beakers.

Inside each container hung an octahedral crystal, dangling in a clear solution. The specimens varied in quality, and the best — the largest, shiniest and most transparent — will be submitted as entries to the U.S. Crystal Growing Competition.

The contest, which awards cash prizes, was founded in 2014 by Jason Benedict, associate professor of chemistry and a crystallographer who continues to organize the annual event. The 2019 competition is reaching about 150 teams — representing thousands of K-12 students and teachers, and homeschooling families — in 33 states.

The class at Williamsville South is among the contenders to beat.

Yap happens to be the U.S. Crystal Growing Competition’s defending second-place winner in the “Teacher Crystal” category, with his 2018 crystal weighing 28.12 grams and earning a score of 6.37 out of 10 for quality. The year before, his Teacher Crystal placed third, and his class won for “Cool Crystal.” (“We put highlighter ink into the crystal, and when you put ultraviolet light on it, it glowed,” Yap explains.)

“A lot of times, as soon as the students get to class, they check their crystal, which is kind of neat,” Yap says. “Some are really into it. It’s nice to see other schools from around the country not just participating. This competition is always very friendly and supportive on social media. The banter between teachers around this and other competitions, like Science Olympiad and the trebuchet contest, is part of the fun of these events.”

Yap has also made the contest a family affair: His kids, Timothy, age 11, a student at Amherst Middle School, and Ellie, age 9, a student at Windermere Boulevard Elementary School, placed fourth and seventh, respectively, in the K-8 category last year.

Photos: Douglas Levere

Don’t touch the crystals!

On Nov. 20, a few days before this year’s Nov. 25 deadline for growing crystals, Benedict and Channel 4 dropped by Williamsville South to meet Yap and his students, and chat about what it takes to grow a perfect crystal.

“What do you think the hardest thing was?” Benedict asked.

“Being patient,” one student said.

“Not touching it,” another added.

“Trying to get it on the string,” a third chimed in. “Everybody did not know how to tie the knot.”

To grow a large, single crystal, students must first cultivate a tiny alum crystal and hang it from a string, suspending it in a solution of powdered alum dissolved in water. As the water evaporates, the solution becomes “supersaturated,” and bits of the alum emerge from the water and latch onto the seed crystal, causing it to get bigger.

It’s careful work that requires a gentle touch (or rather, as multiple students pointed out, no touching).

“If you touch it, it grows weird,” said Nina Pace, a student in Yap’s class.

“You don’t want to touch it,” affirmed Amy Bieber, another student. “The oil on your hand could affect the way the crystal grows.”

Through the competition, the students have learned that the process of growing a crystal “is super precise,” Bieber said. It’s the perfect activity for studying solutions — the current unit in Yap’s class — including what it means for a solution to be unsaturated, saturated and supersaturated.

A student looks at the crystal she's growing in a green colored solution.

Amy Bieber beams as she checks on her crystal. Photo: Douglas Levere

Off to shine in the sunshine

With the crystal-growing period of the competition over, kids and teachers across the country are now mailing submissions to the University of Central Florida, where the contest will be judged this year for the first time.

Past judgings have taken place at UB, where winning crystals are displayed in a cabinet on the seventh floor of the Natural Sciences Complex, right outside the elevators. But as the contest grows, Benedict is increasingly enlisting the help of regional coordinators from the University of Central Florida, Georgetown University and Texas A&M University.

The Yap class and Yap family’s crystals will be among crystals making the long journey south. Is another prize in the offing for these Buffalo-based contenders? Only time will tell.

The U.S. Crystal Growing Competition is sponsored by the UB Department of Chemistry, the Georgetown Department of Chemistry, the University of Central Florida Department of Chemistry, the Texas A&M University Department of Chemistry, the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago, the American Crystallographic Association, the Western New York section of the American Chemical Society, Bruker, The Cambridge Crystallographic Data Centre, Krackeler Scientific Inc., Rigaku, the National Science Foundation and Ward’s Science.