US Crystal Growing Competition — judged at UB — brought a bit of sparkle into children’s lives in an unusual year
By the University at Buffalo
In a year unlike any other in recent memory, the U.S. Crystal Growing Competition brought a bit of sparkle and shine into the lives of kids, families and teachers nationwide.
Held annually since 2014, the contest challenges K-12 students and teachers to grow the biggest, most beautiful crystals they can using aluminum potassium sulfate (alum), a nontoxic chemical used in water purification. Well-cultivated crystals are octahedral, clear and glimmering when they catch the light just right.
Now, the results are in. Winners of the 2020 competition, judged at the University at Buffalo, were announced in February.
“We had just some really great crystals sent to us,” says contest founder Jason Benedict, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry in the UB College of Arts and Sciences. “The winner of our coolest crystal category is a little snowperson, and the runner-up is this jet black crystal, which was pretty neat.”
He adds, “I felt it was really important to do the contest this year because there are so many kids who are not in school in-person, who may not have the chance to do hands-on science and experiments. The crystal-growing competition was well-suited to fill that gap. It’s an experiment that people can do in their homes, with their kids. Regardless of where they do it, it’s just a lot of fun to grow a big crystal, and I have heard from some parents and teachers who were really happy to be able to engage their students in hands-on science.”
Crystal-growing took place in the fall, with the start of the contest coinciding with National Chemistry Week in mid-October. Judging took place at UB in January, with about 100 crystals in the running, some hand-delivered to UB’s chemistry department from Western New Yorkers, and many others mailed in from states including Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas. Winners receive either a cash prize or a crystal modeling kit.
“Participating as a judge of the U.S. Crystal Growing Competition is something I look forward to every year,” says Luis Velarde, Ph.D., UB associate professor of chemistry and a repeat judge. “First of all, I enjoy examining all the cool and beautiful crystals sent to us from all over the country. Most importantly, it is all about the students and teachers that put their heart into it. It is a fun way to appreciate how nature works and the scientific process, whether it is the first time someone thinks about molecular species assembling into crystalline solids, or whether it is an opportunity for more seasoned competitors to challenge themselves by exploring different parameters and conditions.”
“Crystals are all around us in our daily lives: salt, sugar, the ice that a lot of us around here have been shoveling lately,” Benedict says. “How crystals grow is so neat, and really magical, and I do the contest so people can see it and experience it for themselves.”
Details on the 2021 contest are not yet available, but will be posted to the competition’s website later this year (the event is typically held each fall, beginning in October).
In addition to Velarde, judges this year included the following members of the UB community: Ekin Atilla-Gokcumen, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry; David Lacy, Ph.D., assistant professor of chemistry; David Heppner, Ph.D., Jere Solo Assistant Professor of Medicinal Chemistry; Andrea Markelz, Ph.D., professor of physics; Andrew Murkin, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry; and Travis Nelson, graduate instructional support technician in the department of geology.
The U.S. Crystal Growing Competition is sponsored by the American Crystallographic Association (which is based in Buffalo), the U.S. National Science Foundation, VWR and Ward’s Science, the UB department of chemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences, Georgetown University, the Texas A&M department of chemistry, the University of Central Florida department of chemistry, the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, the Western New York section of the American Chemical Society, Bruker, The Cambridge Crystallographic Data Centre, Krackeler Scientific, and Rigaku, along with individuals who have made donations. To make a gift to support the contest, visit the competition’s fundraising page.