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Buffalo as a Crystal City

Buffalo is know as The Queen City on the Lake. We’re also called The City of light. Some people know us as The City of Good Neighbors. And the city was once described as The City of Trees – we need to reclaim that title. There are a number of lesser know titles that have been bestowed upon Buffalo, but there is one that you are probably not familiar with – historically, Western New York has been recognized as a center for crystallography – the study of crystals and their structures. Did you know that The American Crystallographic Association is based in Buffalo, and pre-eminent crystallographers have historically been based in the region? 

“Buffalo has a long history in X-Ray Crystallography,” notes Jane F. Griffin, PhD, X-ray crystallographer (retired from Hauptman-Woodward (HWI)). “Dr. David Harker, an early eminent crystallographer solved the first protein structure in the United States at Roswell Park and won the Gregori Aminoff prize, one notch below a Nobel Prize. Herbert Hauptmann (at HWI) won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1985,  Dr. Philip Coppens also won the Aminoff prize and was a world renowned chemist crystallographer who was at UB for most of his career.​”

Sugar, salt, and chocolate are crystals. So are snowflakes.

Adding to all of that recognition, University at Buffalo and the Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute are considered internationally recognized leaders in crystallography. According to a recent university news center release, UB and Hauptman-Woodward “are partners in the Biology with X-ray Free Electron Lasers (BioXFEL) Science and Technology Center, a national consortium — headquartered in Buffalo — that is breaking new ground in the field.”

In the University at Buffalo chemistry department, bottles of alum — the crystal-growing material of choice — await shipment to 2018 contest participants. Photo credit: Charlotte Hsu / University at Buffalo

To think that just last week I ventured into Inspiration Point on Elmwood Avenue to purchase a crystal. And today I am being thrown for a loop, as I read about how this city is recognized for its crystal dynamics. As a tribute to our strengths in the crystal department, Buffalo is currently hosting the U.S. Crystal Growing Competition, founded in 2014 by UB chemist Jason Benedict, PhD, an associate professor of chemistry in the UB College of Arts and Sciences. This is the fifth year that the contest has been held. As part of the competition, the scientific art of crystal-growing is now underway!

“To be able to use your own skills — your own hands — to cultivate a large single crystal easily the size of a golf ball is really a special experience,” says Benedict, who is a nationally recognized crystallographer. “Once you’ve done it, you don’t forget it. It is almost magical that nature is able to put these atoms and molecules and ions together into such a perfect periodic, symmetric shaped object.”

  • The competition now has 250+ teams, representing thousands of K-12 students, teachers, and homeschooling families
  • The crystals are judged each year in the UB chemistry department
  • Buffalo is internationally known as a center of crystallography
A judge holds up a crystal submitted as an entry in the 2017 contest. Photo credit: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki / University at Buffalo
A good alum crystal is colorless, transparent and octahedral. Photo credit: Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo

Not only has the growth of this competition been amazing, so has the growth of the crystal formations from year to year. For five weeks, the teams grow the crystals, before sending them in to be judged at UB. The competition coincides with National Chemistry Week.

“It is events like this that help get our students excited about (the) sciences, especially in an underprivileged district like ours… It also allowed an organic chemist like me to go back to my days of growing crystals for X-ray,” says past participant Bradley Miller, PhD, head chemistry teacher at J.C. Harmon High School in Kansas City, Kansas.

The world of crystals goes well beyond their inherent beauty, which is something that we don’t tend to think about.

“This contest directly exposes kids to the world of crystals and crystal growth, which are vitally important to modern science in terms of health care, materials, and food,” says Benedict. “Crystals play an enormous role in our daily lives, and I feel like their science is underrepresented in U.S. education.”

Crystals grown from aluminum potassium sulfate, which is supplied to the contestants for free by organizers. To grow a crystal, kids dissolve the material into water, then let the water evaporate. This causes the compound to emerge from the solution to form a crystal. Photo credit: Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo

Lead image: Jason Benedict, associate professor of chemistry at University at Buffalo

Written by queenseyes


Newell Nussbaumer is 'queenseyes' - Eyes of the Queen City and Founder of Buffalo Rising. Co-founder Elmwood Avenue Festival of the Arts. Co-founder Powder Keg Festival that built the world's largest ice maze (Guinness Book of World Records). Instigator behind Emerald Beach at the Erie Basin Marina. Co-created Flurrious! winter festival. Co-creator of Rusty Chain Beer. Instigator behind Saturday Artisan Market (SAM) at Canalside, Buffalo Porchfest, and Paint vs. Paint. Founder of The Peddler retro and vintage market on Elmwood. Instigator behind Liberty Hound @ Canalside. Throws The Witches Ball at Statler City, the Hertel Alley Street Art Festival, and The Flutterby Festival.

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