Physics: The World's Biggest, Most Perfect Snowflakes Are Growing In a California Laboratory

snowflake
Physicist Kenneth Libbrecht grows giant, perfect crystals in a lab. Kenneth Libbrecht/snowcrystals.com

A physicist is trying to grow single-crystal snowflakes that measure an inch or more across, far larger than would ever be possible in nature. Such an achievement would help scientists understand how molecules spontaneously transform from a gaseous state to self-assembling as complex crystals, a mysterious and under-studied area of research, according to The Mercury News.

Kenneth Libbrecht, a professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology, has already created specimens that measure half an inch across. It's no trouble to design larger (and cruder) snowflakes, but perfect, single crystals are a different story. 

“It’s easy to grow an ugly snowflake,” Libbrecht, who's also the author of the website snowcrystals.com, told The Mercury News. “More things go wrong as they get bigger.”

snowflake1 Libbrecht focuses on single-crystal flakes. Kenneth Libbrecht/snowcrystals.com

Libbrecht builds his snowflakes in a Pasadena lab, where they’re carefully preserved via incubation in a cold box, according to The Mercury News. Libbrecht can even design identical twin snowflakes. Using a device called a recirculating chiller, along with a number of custom-designed instruments, he can manipulate the temperature and humidity that surrounds each crystal. This means he can manipulate the patterns they form; they can be hexagonal, or branched or have "stellar" or even "fernlike stellar" dendrites.

Libbrecht, a former astrophysicist, once worked at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, the instrument known for facilitating study of disturbances in the space-time continuum. He told The Mercury News that his snowflake research is “almost an anti-LIGO”—spending minutes, rather than decades, on individual projects.

snowflake2 Libbrecht initially trained to be a solar astronomer. Kenneth Libbrecht/snowcrystals.com

The more Libbrecht and other physicists learn about the process by which crystals self-assemble, the greater our potential to turn that knowledge to the production of semiconductors, laser technology and telecommunications equipment, reported The Mercury News.

Libbrecht has authored several book on his work, including a snowflake field guide. He’s spent decades studying the formation process, according to Smithsonian, and the U.S. Postal Service even used his images for their holiday snowflakes stamp set in 2006. He was also Disney’s “Snowflake Consultant” for the movie Frozen, according to Gizmodo.

snowtypes4sm An abbreviated version of Libbrecht's "Field Guide to Snowflakes." Kenneth Libbrecht/snowcrystals.com

“Ken has not has not only mastered the art and science of taking measurements and images of ice crystals, but also has done the world such a great favor by disseminating this great information in a readable form,” Joseph Shaw, director of the Optical Technology Center at Montana State University, told The Mercury News. “I don’t know of anyone who has contributed more to the aesthetic appreciation of the science."

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