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Molecular Structure Laboratory

2014 Wisconsin Crystal Growing Contest

Molecular Structure Laboratory/ Wisconsin Crystal Growing Contest Updated: October 26, 2015

  • Definition
  • Results
  • Prizes
  • Who can participate
  • How to sign up
  • Crystallization material
  • Safety
  • What is a crystal
  • How to grow crystals
  • Crystal judging
  • Participants
  • Sponsors and contributors
  • National Events
  • International Events
  • Contact
  • T-shirts
  • Publications


To celebrate the International Year of Crystallography 2014, the Molecular Structure Laboratory of the UW-Madison Chemistry Department has launched the Wisconsin Crystal Growing Competition to be held April-May 2014 among Wisconsin high school students.

This is an exciting scientific competition as well as a fun, hands-on experience. High schools are provided with materials on a first come first serve basis. Instructions on how to grow crystals are provided on the web. The objective is to grow the biggest and highest quality single crystal. The contest is described in the Handbook.

The winners will compete in the National Crystal Growing Competition. Additionally, everyone has a chance to compete in the International Crystal Growing Competition.


The Wisconsin competition judging took place on June 5, 2014. The award ceremony took place on June 20 at the UW-Madison Chemistry Department. All participants are invited to attend the award ceremony.

Best overall:
1st place: Rainee Roger, Laura Smith (Flambeau HS, Tony);
2nd place: Payton Goetz, Joseph Robl (Omro HS);
3rd place: Cassidy Colby (Turner HS, Beloit).

Best quality:
1-2 (tie): Megan Jordan (Clinton HS);
1-2 (tie): Clara Neeb (Montello HS).

Best teacher's crystal:
Jasmin Gibson (Verona Area HS).

Organizer's favorite crystal:
Kyrat Krin (Blair-Taylor HS, Blair).

Special prize for Crystal Art:
Kaitlin Loomis (Turner HS, Beloit).

A panel of six judges, both chemists and crystallographers, evaluated crystals from 20 schools;
Dr. Galina Bikzhanova (Covance, former Sigma Aldrich)
Brian Dolinar (UW-Madison)
Dr. Dan Frankel (Bruker)
Dr. Ilia Guzei (UW-Madison, American Crystallographic Association, International Union of Crystallography)
Dr. Paula Piccoli (former Argonne Photon Source)
Dr. Nathan Reynolds (Sigma Aldrich)

and selected the winners in all categories.

Wisconsin prizes

The crystals will be judged in three categories:

  1. Best Overall Crystal – 1st prize ($200), 2nd prize ($100), 3rd prize ($50)
  2. Best Quality Crystal – 1st prize ($200)
  3. Best Teacher’s Crystal – 1st prize ($100)

Students win cash awards for their school and will receive books and individual certificates as personal prizes.

The top finishers will be invited to a reception at University of Wisconsin-Madison and receive prizes. The winners will have the opportunity to work with out X-ray crystallographer to build a crystallographically accurate ball-n-stick model of their compound, examine crystals a high-resolution microscope, and perform macro photography of their crystals.

In addition, the best crystals will become part of a permanent display at the Molecular Structure Laboratory at UW-Madison.

The crystal growing period is from April 1 to May 31, 2014. The judging will take place in June, 2014 by a panel of judges.

Who can participate?

  • All Wisconsin high school students or home-schooled youths ages 14-18.
  • Individuals or teams of up to three students. There is no limit on the number of teams per school.
  • High school science teachers.

The entires will be categorized in three different divisions as described below. Each division will be judged separately. Up to three top crystals in each category are sent to be judged nationally.

  • Division 1: Wisconsin high school students.
  • Division 2: Wisconsin home-schooled students.
  • Division 3: High school teachers. High school teacher crystals are judged for overall quality only, separately from the students’ crystals.


How to sign up for the contest

1. Read the How to Grow Crystals section and decide that you are up to the task.

2. Fill out the Material request form and mail or e-mail it to the address below.  Submission of a Material request form serves as your free registration for the contest.

3. Dr. Guzei will contact you to arrange for the chemical pick-up or delivery.

4. Grow crystals. The procedure and contest are described in the Handbook.

5. Fill out the official Entry form and mail it along with your crystals to the address below.


All forms, requests, questions, and crystals should be sent to

Ilia A. Guzei, Ph.D.
2124 Chemistry Department
University of Wisconsin-Madison
1101 University Ave
Madison, WI  53706, USA
Phone: 608-263-4694
iguzei@chem.wisc.edu (subject line: Wisconsin Crystal Growing Competition).

What is the crystallization material and how to get it?

For 2014 the material used for the crystal growing competition is cupric sulfate, CuSO4.5H2O (copper (II) sulfate pentahydrate, or ‘bluestone’). It is available free of charge on a first come first serve basis. Each participant or team is eligible for 200g of pure cupric sulfate.

This material is chosen because it produces large beautiful blue crystals, which are neither too easy nor too difficult to grow. Cupric sulfate was also the compound used in the very first X-ray diffraction experiment by Max von Laue in 1912.

To order your material contact Dr. Ilia Guzei by mail or e-mail.

NOTE: Due to a limited supply available each team/student is eligible for 200 g of free material. Each school’s allotment will be limited to 1000 g of free material. The material is available on first come first serve basis. Additional supplies may be purchased from Sigma-Aldrich, item 209198. Also, many hardware stores carry cupric sulfate as a common pesticide.


Copper (II) sulfate pentahydrate is relatively safe, but the usual safety precautions should be exercised. Gloves and goggles are recommended.

The Cupric Sulfate Material Safety Data Sheet is available at the Sigma Aldrich (one of our sponsors) web site.

What is a crystal?

A crystal is a solid that consists of various atoms, ions, or molecules arranged in a uniform three-dimensional repeating pattern. This results in the material having a specific shape and color, and having other characteristic properties. Diamond (used in jewelry and cutting tools) is an example of a crystal. It is made of pure carbon. Salt and sugar are also examples of crystals.

Recrystallization is a process that has been used to purify solid material by dissolving the solid (called a solute) in an appropriate liquid (called a solvent) and then having the material precipitate out of solution in crystalline form. Depending upon conditions, one may obtain a mass of many small crystals or one large crystal.

Crystals are characterized by type, shape, form, clarity, and color.

How to grow crystals

The crystal growing period is from April 1 to May 31, 2014. The judging will take place in June, 2014 by a panel of judges.

RULE 1: The maximum amount of starting material that may be used for each given crystal is limited to 100 g.
RULE 2: So that all students have an equal preparation time, crystal production must conclude within five weeks after receipt of starting material.

First Stage: Grow a Seed Crystal

The idea is to grow a single crystal, not a bunch of crystals. You will first need to grow a small perfect crystal that will become your seed crystal, around which you will later grow a large crystal. It is therefore essential to avoid excessively rapid growth, which encourages the formation of multiple crystals instead of a single crystal.

What You Need

  • Substance to be crystallized
  • Distilled or mineralized water
  • A shallow dish (e.g., Petri)
  • Heating plate or stove
  • Fishing line (1 to 2 kg strength)
  • A small wood rod (e.g., popsicle stick)
  • A magnifying glass (optional)

Important Things to Know

  • How much substance you have to work with, which you can determine by weighing it on a balance.
  • The solubility of the substance in water at room temperature, which you can obtain from a chemistry reference book.
  • It would also be useful to know the solubility of the substance at elevated temperatures, which is information that may also be available in a reference book such as Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, 45th Ed (1964-5).

What to Do

  1. Warm about 50 mL (1/4 cup) of water in a glass container.
  2. Dissolve a quantity of the substance to produce a saturated solution at the elevated temperature.
  3. Pour the warm solution into a shallow dish.
  4. Allow the solution to cool to room temperature.
  5. After a day or so, small crystals should begin to form.
  6. Remove some of the crystals.
  7. With a magnifier select a beautiful and transparent small crystal. This will be your seed crystal.
  8. Tie the seed crystal with the fishing line by using a simple overhand knot.
  9. Suspend the seed crystal in a shallow (1 to 2 mm deep) small volume (about 1 to 2 mL) saturated solution (for example, in a cover or a Petri dish) for some time (1 to 2 days).
  10. Check with the magnifier that the seedling crystal is well-fixed to the line by its beginning growth. This step is very important because one can lose several days of growth if the ‘beginning growth’ is not regular or not along the structure of the seedling crystal. It is worth checking properly before going on with the regular crystal growth.

Second Stage: Grow a Large, Single Crystal

Now you are ready to proceed with the preparation of a large single crystal. Once you have mastered this step, you may be interested in trying to grow single crystals in the presence of introduced ‘impurities" that may give different crystal colors or shapes. In recrystallization, one tries to prepare a solution that is supersaturated with respect to the solute (the material you want to crystallize).

There are several ways to do this. One is to heat the solvent, dissolve as much solute as you can (said to be a "saturated" solution at that temperature), and then let it cool. At this point, all the solute remains in solution, which now contains more solute at that temperature than it normally would (and is said to be "supersaturated"). This situation is somewhat unstable. If you now suspend a solid material in the solution, the "extra" solute will tend to come out of solution and grow around the solid. Particles of dust can cause this to occur. However, this growth will be uncontrolled and should be avoided (thus the recrystallization beaker should be covered). To get controlled growth, a "seed crystal", prepared from the solute should be suspended into the solution. The supersaturation method works when the solute is more soluble in hot solvent than cold. This is usually the case, but there are exceptions. For example, the solubility of table salt (sodium chloride) is about the same whether the water is hot or cold. The rate at which crystallization occurs will affect crystal quality. The more supersaturated a solution is, the faster growth may be. Usually, the best crystals are the ones that grow SLOWLY.

Thus, if you heated the solvent to near the boiling point to get a highly supersaturated solution on cooling back to room temperature, crystals may start to form before the solution had completely cooled. This is where the "art" of science comes into play. One has to experiment a bit to get the right conditions. A second way to get supersaturation is to start with a saturated solution and let the solvent evaporate. This will be a slower process.

The above will apply to most situations. It is necessary to match the proper solvent with a given solute.

WARNING: the solubility of some salts is quite sensitive to temperature, so the temperature of recrystallization should be controlled as best you can. There have been reports in the past of students having a nice big crystal growing in a beaker on a Friday, the room temperature rising in a school over the weekend, and by Monday morning the crystal had totally gone back into solution. Consider insulating your crystallization vessel inside a Styrofoam box.

What You Need

  • Substance to be crystallized
  • A seed crystal of the substance to be crystallized on a fishing line
  • Distilled or demineralized water
  • A small wood rod or popsicle stick
  • Thermometer
  • Balance
  • Plastic or glass container
  • Heating plate
  • Beaker of 2 to 4 liters volume
  • Thermostated bath (optional)
  • Slow revolution motor (1 to 4 rotations per day) (optional)

Important Things to Know

  • How much substance you have to work with, which you can determine by weighing it on a balance
  • The solubility of the substance in water at room temperature, which you can obtain from a chemistry reference book
  • It would also be useful to know the solubility of the substance at elevated temperatures, which is information that may also be available in a reference book.

How to Prepare a Supersaturated Solution

To grow your large, single crystal, you will need a supersaturated solution. The amounts of substance and water to be used will depend upon the solubility at room and elevated temperatures. You may have to determine the proper proportions by trial and error (just like the first scientists did).

Method One

  1. Place about double the amount of substance that would normally dissolve in a certain volume of water at room temperature into that volume of water. (e.g. if 30 g (about 1 oz) of X dissolves in 100 g (mL) of water at room temperature, place 60 g of X in 100 mL of water.) Adjust the proportions depending upon how much material you have. Use clean glassware.
  2. Stir the mixture until it appears that no more will go into solution.
  3. Continue stirring the mixture while gently warming the solution.
  4. Once all of the substance has gone into solution, remove the container from the heat.
  5. Allow the solution to cool to room temperature.
  6. You now have a supersaturated solution.

Method Two

  1. Select an appropriate volume of water.
  2. Warm this water to about 15-s20 deg above room temperature.
  3. Add some of your substance to the warm water and stir the mixture to dissolve completely.
  4. Continue adding substance and stirring until there is a little material that won’t dissolve.
  5. Warm the mixture a bit more until the remaining material goes into solution.
  6. Once all of the substance has gone into solution, remove the container from the heat.
  7. Allow the solution to cool to room temperature.
  8. You now have a supersaturated solution.

Now you can grow your wonderful crystal!

Since the solubility of a substance varies a lot with temperature, it is very important to control the temperature carefully. If the room temperature is stable then you might be able to leave your apparatus out in the open. If it can vary by even only a degree or two, then it may be necessary to place the apparatus into a thermostated bath set to a few degrees above room temperature (if available, but this is not mandatory). You could also place the growing apparatus inside a Styrofoam or picnic cooler.

Also, for the seed crystal to grow, it is absolutely necessary that the solution never be unsaturated at the temperature of the experiment (usually the room temperature).

Getting Started

  1. Carefully suspend your seed crystal from the stick into the supersaturated solution, being careful not to let the crystal touch the bottom of the container.
  2. Cover the container in which the crystal is growing. This is to:
    • keep out dust, and
    • reduce temperature fluctuations.
    This can be done with plastic wrap or aluminum foil. If you want to allow the solvent (typically water) to evaporate (see step #4b below), then use porous paper (e.g., filter paper or coffee filter).
  3. Observe the crystal growth. Depending upon the substance, the degree of supersaturation and the temperature, this may take several days before the growth slows down and stops. A couple of different things can happen at this stage. The questions and answers below can help you.
    • Why does the crystal stop growing?
      A crystal will only grow when the surrounding solution is supersaturated with solute. When the solution is exactly saturated, no more material will be deposited on the crystal. (This may not be entirely true. Some may be deposited, however an equal amount will leave the crystal surface to go back into solution. We call this an equilibrium condition.)
    • Why did my crystal shrink/disappear?
      If your crystal shrank or disappeared, it was because the surrounding solution became unsaturated and the crystal material went back into solution. Unsaturation may occur when the temperature of a saturated solution increases, even by only a few degrees, depending upon the solute. (This is why temperature control is so important.)
    • How do I get crystal growth restarted?
      Step 4 below will give you the details.
  4. Resupersaturate the solution. This may need to be done on a daily basis, especially when the crystal gets larger. But first, remove the crystal.
    a) One way to resupersaturate the solution is to reduce the amount of solvent. This may be done by heating the solution for a while and then cool it to the original temperature. b) Alternatively, you can just let the solvent evaporate from the solution; this may be a slow process, but has the advantage of getting a better quality crystal. c) One can also supersaturate the solution by warming it somewhat, then adding and dissolving more solute, and finally cooling it.
  5. Each time the solution is saturated, it is a good idea to ‘clean’ the monocrystal surface, by
    • making sure the crystal is dry.
    • not touching the crystal with your fingers (hold only by the suspending line if possible).
    • removing any ‘bumps’ on the surface due to extra growth.
    • removing any small crystals from the line.
    It is a good habit to clean your hands after each manipulation.
  6. Resuspend the crystal back into the newly supersaturated solution.
  7. Repeat steps 4-6 as needed.
  8. To get improved symmetry and size, slowly rotate the growing monocrystal (1 to 4 rotations per day). An electric motor with 1 to 4 daily rotations might be difficult to find (consider one from an old humidity drum-register or other apparatus). This option becomes useful only when a monocrystal gets rather big.

How Are the Crystals Judged?

Each school is encouraged to submit one crystal for best quality and one for best overall. It is recognized that several crystals from a school may be of roughly equivalent overall quality. If this is the case each school may submit several crystals. Of these several crystals from a particular school, only one may be the ‘official’ crystal to be considered for all prize(s).

Judging Criteria

One single crystal will be judged only on the basis of quality as outlined below. The other single crystal will be judged on the basis of combining mass and quality factors as outlined below.

The quality is judged by experts who will rank the crystals on a scale of 0 to 10. A score of 10 will be given to a perfect gem-quality crystal that fits the ideal crystal structure known for the chemical.

1. The crystal is weighed, and the mass Mo recorded. The crystal must be a minimum of 0.5 g to be eligible for judging.

2. The quality of the crystal is judged on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 representing a perfect crystal.

The following factors will be considered in judging quality:

  • match/mismatch with crystal type (out of 2)
  • presence/absence of occlusions (out of 2)
  • intact/broken edges (out of 2)
  • well formed/misformed faces (out of 2)
  • clarity/muddiness (out of 2)

Total Observed Quality Qo = x.xx (out of 10)

3. The Total Score is then determined as follows:
Total Score = [log (Mo+1)] x Qo

The logarithm of the mass is chosen so that large poor quality crystals don’t swamp out smaller good quality crystals. The value 1 is added to the mass so that crystals weighing less than 1 g get a positive score.

A 100 per cent yield crystal made from 100 g (Mt) that scores a perfect 10 on quality (Qt) would get a theoretical maximum of:
[log (100+1)] x 10 = 20.01

The actual score is expressed as a percentage of the maximum. The crystal with the highest Overall Score is the winning crystal.
100 x {[log (Mo+1)] x Qo} / {[log (Mt+1)] x Qt} = Overall Score %

For example, the best overall crystal in the 2001 contest with 150 g starting material weighed 46.53 g and had a quality of 8.65. Its overall score was:
100 x {[log (46.53+1)] x 8.65} / {[log (150+1)] x 10} = 66.6%

This score is nearly an absolute score that could be used to judge different types of crystals grown from differing amounts of starting material.


As of March 19, 2014 the following 26 Wisconsin schools have entered the contest. Explore the map by clicking on it.

1. Montello Junior/Senior High. map
2. Nekoosa High School.
3. Flambeau High School, Tony.
4. Westosha Central High School. Salem.
5. D.C.Everest High School. Weston.
6. Omro High School.
7. Laona High School.
8. Weyauwega-Fremont High School, Weyauwega.
9. Blair-Taylor High School, Blair.
10. Waterford Union High School.
11. Berlin High School.
12. Middleton High School.
13. Hortonville High School.
14. Marshall High School.
15. Clinton High School.
16. Oshkosh North High School.
17. Fort Atkinson High School.
18. Ashwaubenon High School.
19. McFarland High School.
20. Edgerton High School.
21. Case High School, Racine.
22. Bay Port High School, Green Bay.
23. Hartford Union High School.
24. FJ Turner High School.
25. Sun Prairie High School.
26. Seymour Community High School.
27. Verona Area High School.
28. Madison West High School.

Sponsors and individual contributors

Many thanks go to our generous sponsors without whom this competition would not be possible. Click on the images to visit the sponsors' web pages.



Bruker logo




IUCrIYCr iycr


We gladly acknowledge our enthusiastic contributors

Rachel Bain (Chemistry Department, organization)
Cheri Barta (Chemistry Department, web site)
Jason Benedict (SUNY at Buffalo, organization)
Brian Dolinar (Chemistry Department, crystal growth)
Kandis Elliot (Zoology Department, logo design)
Dan Frankel (personal donation)
Ilia Guzei (organization, sponsorship)

Dr. Ilia Guzei is grateful to his Canadian and Australian colleagues for sharing their expertise and contest-related materials.

National Events

The American Crystallographic Association will conduct the first National crystal growing competition in 2014.

Prof. Hazel Holden runs Project CRYSTAL at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Project CRYSTAL's mission is to provide a hands-on laboratory experience for middle school students in an active, state of the art research laboratory. Through teaching and research, Project CRYSTAL aims to instill a love for chemistry and foster interest in a future career in science in middle school students.

International Events and Crystal Growing Contests

An International Crystal Growing Competition for school children (age 12–18) from every part of the world is being organized by the International Union of Crystallography to be held in 2014. This initiative is coordinated by Luc Van Meervelt (Luc.VanMeervelt@chem.kuleuven.be) together with the representatives of some existing national or regional competitions who already have a strong experience and tradition in this field. All countries are invited to participate in and to start their own national competition, if not already active, exploiting the mentoring of the experienced “growers”. The winners will be the students who most successfully convey their experiences to the panel of judges through videos, diaries, essays, soundscapes and other media.

Gallery of artificially grown crystals

The IUCr Commission on Crystal Growth and Characterization of Materials, in association with the International Organization of Crystal Growth, is building a gallery of pictures of artificially grown crystals. These pictures may be freely used for educational purposes, and demonstrate the wide range of procedures used to grow many types of crystal for research and industrial use. Everybody is invited to submit pictures of the crystals they have grown and visit the gallery at http://www.iycr2014.org/participate/crystal-growing.

Photo competition “Crystallography in everyday life”

The International Union of Crystallography and Agilent Technologies invite all amateur and professional photographers to submit stunning images that capture the spirit of crystallography in the places, objects and experiences of everyday life.  Two winners will each receive USD 1,000, sponsored by Agilent, to attend the IUCr Congress in Montreal, where an exhibition with the best photographs will be put on display.  All details are available at http://www.iycr2014.org/participate/photo-competition.

Links to foreign competitions

Chemical Institute of Canada has been conducting crystal growing competitions for several years.

University of Canberra, Australia, has been organizing crystal growing competitions as well.

The Spanish National Research Council has a site for all things Crystallography.

Contact and questions

All questions should be address to the Director of the Molecular Structure Laboratory

Ilia A. Guzei, Ph.D.
2124 Chemistry Department
University of Wisconsin-Madison
1101 University Ave
Madison, WI  53706, USA
Phone: 608-263-4694
iguzei@chem.wisc.edu (subject line: Wisconsin Crystal Growing Competition).

Cool contest T-shirts

Celebrate the Crystal Growing Contest with a T-shirt.
The front and back designs are shown below.
These high quality cotton shirts are available in four sizes: S, M, L, and XL for just $15. Checks should be made out to the UW Chemistry Department. To order send an e-mail to the address in the Contact tab.


The competition has been mentioned in the February 17, 2014 issue of the Chemical and Engineering News in Linda Wang's article "Job help from Jon Stewart, Crystallography Stamps".

The contest was promoted at the Wisconsin Society of Science Teachers Conference in Appleton, March 13-15.

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