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Buffalo shines national light on crystals with UB competition

Thousands of schoolkids across the United States are competing in a Buffalo-born science project to see who can grow the biggest, most beautiful crystals.

That’s right: crystals.

This month marks the start of the U.S. Crystal Growing Competition based here in Buffalo, the brainchild of Jason Benedict, a crystallographer and associate chemistry professor at the University at Buffalo, who is trying to give crystals their due.

We tend to think of crystals simply as quartz or diamonds or other gemstones, but sugar and salt are crystals, too. So are snowflakes. In fact, he said, crystals are important to modern science.

For instance, Benedict said, many pharmaceuticals are crystalline and growing these crystals is vitally important to producing effective drugs to treat diseases.

“It’s amazing how many facets of our daily lives we deal with crystals and it’s really not part of the regular curriculum for students,” Benedict said.

So to introduce students to crystals, Benedict five years ago started the U.S. Crystal Growing Competition, which is based closely after a similar contest in Canada.

It starts with a 100 grams of aluminum potassium sulfate, or “alum,” a chemical compound commonly used in water purification. Dissolve the powdered material in water, then let the water evaporate. The compound emerges from the solution as a crystal.

But there’s also an art to this science.

If the water evaporates too slowly, the crystal will be puny; too fast and there are too many imperfections. Time it right, though, and you could have a winner the size of a golf ball.

“The judging is really straightforward,” Benedict said. “For anyone who has ever shopped for a diamond, it pretty much follows the same rules.

“We’re looking for the crystals to have a nice shape. It should look like a nice octahedron,” Benedict said. “It should have smooth flat surfaces and really nice sharp edges. And one of the other things we judge is how transparent it is. Is it clear and really crisp? Or is it muddy and have stuff on the inside?”

“When you pull one of these things out of the solution it really is magical,” says Jason Benedict, associate professor of chemistry at UB, shown looking looks into a container where an aluminum potassium sulfate crystal is forming in a lab at UB. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Cash prizes of up to $200 are awarded in various categories.

The competition is a good, hands-on science lesson for students, Benedict said.

But, he said, it’s also pretty cool.

“When you pull one of these things out of the solution it really is magical,” Benedict said. “It’s also cool because you did it by our own hand.”

Based on the participation, teachers and kids agree.

Five years ago, 30 teams from eight states took part in the competition. This year, there are more than 250 registered teams from 42 states and Washington, D.C., representing as many as 4,000 K-12 students, teachers and home-schooling families.

“People hear about it and once they’ve done it, they keep coming back,” Benedict said.

Benedict recently shipped off the free crystal kits to the participants, thanks to numerous sponsors, including the National Science Foundation, the UB Department of Chemistry and the American Crystallographic Association, which is based in Buffalo.

The crystal growing begins Oct. 22, to coincide with National Chemistry Week, and continues for five weeks. After that, the contestants ship their crystals to UB for judging by a panel of experts in early December.

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