Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2016
  • Online publication date: May 2018

1 - Introduction


The perfect crystal structure is an idealization of the atomic arrangements in real crystalline materials. After a brief introduction of several common perfect crystal structures, we start our study of imperfections in crystals with some remarks about why so much attention is focused on these defects. The central reason is that perfect crystals, without imperfections, would be relatively uninteresting materials, without most of the useful properties with which we are all familiar.We consider some of the physical properties that crystals would have or not have if they were perfect. Through this thought experiment, we show that most of the useful engineering properties of crystalline materials are defect controlled and thus depend on the properties and behavior of imperfections.

Perfect crystal structures

Single crystals and polycrystals

The word “crystal” usually brings to mind large mineral (e.g. quartz) blocks on display in museums, or the shiny diamond on a wedding ring. Their faceted surfaces and often distinct geometric shape give rise to a sense of beauty not found in other more “common” materials. As an example, Fig. 1.1a shows a photograph of a ruby crystal. However, crystalline materials are easily found in our everyday life. In fact, most engineering materials are crystalline. Metals, semiconductors, and ceramics are all crystalline materials, even though they may not have faceted surfaces.

The distinction between a large ruby crystal and an engineering metallic alloy is that the former is a single crystal and the latter is usually a polycrystal. A polycrystal is an aggregate of many small single crystals (called grains), each with a different orientation. As an example, Fig. 1.1b shows a micrograph of a nickel-based superalloy (where the word “super” refers to its superior mechanical properties). The size of each single crystal grain in this superalloy is on the order of 10 to 100 micrometers (μm), too small to be seen by the naked eye. That is why the shape of a piece of metal does not seem faceted to the eye; the facets can be observed with the aid of a microscope.