Crystal Vibrations (Phonons)

Atomic motions in molecules and crystals are organized into vibrational modes. In crystals these modes are called phonons (Phonon Wiki). As with molecules, quantum mechanics requires that vibrational energy in a crystal is gained or lost in discrete packets, or quanta, of energy, corresponding to hν, where h is Planck's constant (6.626x10–34 J•sec) and ν is the frequency of a vibration. In addition, a half-quantum (hν/2) of vibrational energy will be present in each mode even at absolute zero temperature. The quantum-mechanical nature of phonon energy drives isotopic fractionation in crystals, causes discrete infrared absorption bands, and Raman scattering. It also controls superconductivity (when phonons couple with electronic motion), temperature-variable heat capacity, and heat conduction.

Large-wavelength crystal vibrations are routinely measured by infrared and Raman spectroscopy, while shorter wavelength vibrations can usually only be examined with more difficult neutron- or x-ray-scattering techniques. Very little is known about effects of isotopic substitution on vibrational frequencies in crystals, so it is almost always necessary to create force-field models to estimate isotope fractionations.
Recent theoretical and computational developments have made it possible to calculate crystal phonon frequencies from first principles, using density functional theory. This page links to some results of calculations made with ABINIT. Another (much more professional-looking) web page showing calculations made with the semi-commercial code CRYSTAL0x can be found here. The WURM project also has a large database of phonon animations.

Pyrope (Mg3Si4O10[OH]2)

Pyrope subcell (Al-centered)

Albite (NaAlSi3O8)

Albite 2x2x2

Talc (Mg3Si4O10[OH]2)

Tacl 2x2x2 image

Pyrophyllite (Al2Si4O10[OH]2)

Pyrophyllite 2x2x2

Aragonite (CaCO3)

Aragonite unit cell

Witherite (BaCO3)

Witherite Structure

Quartz (SiO2)


Magnesium Silicate Perovskite (MgSiO3)
Cubic (Pm-3m)

                    Perovskite Structure



Nahcolite (NaHCO3)
e.g., baking soda

Nahcolite Structure

Phonons animations were created using Jmol, a free Java molecular graphics package. You may need to install or upgrade Java on your computer to see these animations. 

The research shown on these pages was made possible by support from the National Science Foundation, the NASA Astrobiology Institute, and UCLA.