A Paper! Good God, a Paper: ‘Synchrotron X-ray diffuse scattering from a stable polymorphic material: terephthalic acid, C8H6O4’

I’ve been doing science for a long time, and while I’m in a bit of a career transition at the moment (see here for example), I’ve still got a few fingers in a few pies, and a few pieces of work slowly wending their ways through the system. Most recently, Eric Chan and I put out ‘Synchrotron X-ray diffuse scattering from a stable polymorphic material: terephthalic acid, C8H6O4‘. It’s a paper about the fuzzy, diffuse scattering from two polymorphs of the title compound.

It’s out in Acta Crystallographica Section B: STRUCTURAL SCIENCE, CRYSTAL ENGINEERING AND MATERIALS, a highly reputable but not open access journal, although they do allow authors to self-archive. At the moment, what that means is if you want a copy send me a message and I’ll punt one back to you.

Terephthalic acid molecule, drawn in Mercury.

Terephthalic acid molecule, drawn in Mercury.

What is terephthalic acid (TPA)? Well, it is a chemical used a lot in industry (plastics and such) and at room temperature it can crystallise out of solution in two forms, called (wait for it) form I and form II. (Well, actually the word ‘form’ is poorly defined in this context, technically, and it’s better to just say ‘polymorph I’ and ‘polymorph II’). In this context, a molecule is polymorphic if it can form more than one crystal structure and these structures can co-exist. Many materials change structure as you heat them up or squash them, but in a polymorphic system separate crystals of the structures can sit there side by side, under the same conditions. In most case, those conditions are room temperature and one atmosphere of pressure.

The two room temperature polymorphs are both triclinic, so of low symmetry. The difference is in how the molecules are arranged relative to each other. In both cases the -COOH groups on the ends of the molecules connect strongly to those on neighbouring molecules, so long chains of molecules form. (In the picture here, the -COOH groups are those at the ends of the molecule consisting of two red (oxygen) atoms, one white (hydrogen) and the grey (carbon) atom attached to the two whites.) These chains are sort of like one dimensional crystals, and then they are stacked up (like logs or a pile of pipes), but you can stack them up with, say, the -COOH in neighbouring chains close together, or you might have the phenyl rings (that is, the hexagon of grey carbon atoms) in one chain adjacent to the -COOH in the next. So in that sort of way you can get different crystal structures depending on how you stack things up.

Anyway, the paper looks at these polymorphs and how they are similar and how they differ. It uses my old ZMC program, which you can download from here (it comes with an example simulation, though not this one I’m talking about now). (That link goes to a paper I wrote and published for an Open Access journal, which I chose specifically so that you could go and download ZMC and everything for free…)

So in doing this I think about the connectivity of the molecule — how do the atoms depend on each other and where does the molecule need to be able to flex and twist? That means I end up drawing diagrams like this one:



That’s exciting, isn’t it? I start at the middle (X) and then each atom is positioned relative to the ones that went before. Here’s another picture (because I happen to have it handy)…. This shows how the atoms were numbered, and how by numbering them correctly and building the molecule up in the right order it is easy to let the -COOH groups spin around. mol_num

The X-ray diffuse scatting in the <i>h</i>0<i>l</i> layer of reciprocal space of TPA.

The X-ray diffuse scattering in the h0l layer of reciprocal space of TPA. Measured at the Advanced Photon Source.

Here I show typical data. You can see the little white spots — these are the sharp diffraction peaks, Bragg peaks, and they indicate where a lot of X-rays were reflected off the crystal. They are what is used to work out what is usually called the ‘crystal structure’ which consists of the unit cell (the repeating unit) that the crystal is made up from. But you can also see blobs and streaks and stuff, and these are wider (‘diffuse’) features, and these tell us about how the molecules interact and shuffle each other around, and stuff like that.

Anyway, the paper is online now. The DOI link is https://doi.org/10.1107/S2052520616018801. One thing I really like about it is it’s got a mathematical appendix. I always wanted to write an article with a mathematical appendix. I think I might post on that separately.







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About Darren

I'm a scientist by training, based in Australia.

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