Unit Cells of Metals

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A diagram of two images is shown. In the first image, a cube with a sphere at each corner is shown. The cube is labeled “Unit cell” and the spheres at the corners are labeled “Lattice points.” The second image shows the same cube, but this time it is one cube amongst eight that make up a larger cube. The original cube is shaded a color while the other cubes are not.
Figure 1. A unit cell shows the locations of lattice points repeating in all directions. Source: OpenStax Chemistry 2e

Unit Cells of Metals (OpenStax Chemistry 2e)

The structure of a crystalline solid, whether a metal or not, is best described by considering its simplest repeating unit, which is referred to as its unit cell. The unit cell consists of lattice points that represent the locations of atoms or ions. The entire structure then consists of this unit cell repeating in three dimensions, as illustrated in Figure 1.

Let us begin our investigation of crystal lattice structure and unit cells with the most straightforward structure and the most basic unit cell. To visualize this, imagine taking a large number of identical spheres, such as tennis balls, and arranging them uniformly in a container. The simplest way to do this would be to make layers in which the spheres in one layer are directly above those in the layer below, as illustrated in Figure 2. This arrangement is called simple cubic structure, and the unit cell is called the simple cubic unit cell or primitive cubic unit cell.

A diagram of three images is shown. In the first image, a cube with a sphere at each corner is shown. The spheres at the corners are circled. The second image shows the same cube, but this time the spheres at the corners are larger and shaded in. In the third image, the cube is one cube amongst eight that make up a larger cube. The original cube is shaded a color while the other cubes are not.
Figure 2. When metal atoms are arranged with spheres in one layer directly above or below spheres in another layer, the lattice structure is called simple cubic. Note that the spheres are in contact. Source: OpenStax Chemistry 2e

In a simple cubic structure, the spheres are not packed as closely as they could be, and they only “fill” about 52% of the volume of the container. This is a relatively inefficient arrangement, and only one metal (polonium, Po) crystallizes in a simple cubic structure. As shown in Figure 3, a solid with this type of arrangement consists of planes (or layers) in which each atom contacts only the four nearest neighbors in its layer; one atom directly above it in the layer above; and one atom directly below it in the layer below. The number of other particles that each particle in a crystalline solid contacts is known as its coordination number. For a polonium atom in a simple cubic array, the coordination number is, therefore, six.

A diagram of two images is shown. In the first image, eight stacked cubes that make up one large cube are shown. Three lines that run from top to bottom, front to back and sided to side in the middle of the structure are shaded darker than the rest of the lines. The second image shows the same set of cubes, but this time spheres at the end of each line are numbered; the horizontal line that goes left to right is labeled with a “2” and a “5,” the vertical line is labeled with a “1” and a “6” and the line that goes horizontally front to back is labeled with a “3” and a “4.”
Figure 3. An atom in a simple cubic lattice structure contacts six other atoms, so it has a coordination number of six. Source: OpenStax Chemistry 2e

In a simple cubic lattice, the unit cell that repeats in all directions is a cube defined by the centers of eight atoms, as shown in Figure 4. Atoms at adjacent corners of this unit cell contact each other, so the edge length of this cell is equal to two atomic radii, or one atomic diameter. A cubic unit cell contains only the parts of these atoms that are within it. Since an atom at a corner of a simple cubic unit cell is contained by a total of eight unit cells, only one-eighth of that atom is within a specific unit cell. And since each simple cubic unit cell has one atom at each of its eight “corners,” there is 8 x ⅛ = 1 atom within one simple cubic unit cell.

A diagram of two images is shown. In the first image, eight spheres are stacked together to form a cube and dots at the center of each sphere are connected to form a cube shape. The dots are labeled “Lattice points” while a label under the image reads “Simple cubic lattice cell.” The second image shows the portion of each sphere that lie inside the cube. The corners of the cube are shown with small circles labeled “Lattice points” and the phrase “8 corners” is written below the image.
Figure 4. A simple cubic lattice unit cell contains one-eighth of an atom at each of its eight corners, so it contains one atom total. Source: OpenStax Chemistry 2e

Some metals crystallize in an arrangement that has a cubic unit cell with atoms at all of the corners and an atom in the center, as shown in Figure 5. This is called a body-centered cubic (BCC) solid. Atoms in the corners of a BCC unit cell do not contact each other but contact the atom in the center. A BCC unit cell contains two atoms: one-eighth of an atom at each of the eight corners (8 x ⅛ = 1 atom from the corners) plus one atom from the center. Any atom in this structure touches four atoms in the layer above it and four atoms in the layer below it. Thus, an atom in a BCC structure has a coordination number of eight.

Three images are shown. The first image shows a cube with black dots at each corner and a red dot in the center while the second image is composed of eight spheres that are stacked together to form a cube with one sphere in the center of the cube and dots at the center of each corner sphere connected to form a cube shape.  The name under this image reads “Body-centered cubic structure.” The third image is the same as the second, but only shows the portions of the spheres that lie inside the cube shape.
Figure 5. In a body-centered cubic structure, atoms in a specific layer do not touch each other. Each atom touches four atoms in the layer above it and four atoms in the layer below it. Source: OpenStax Chemistry 2e

Atoms in BCC arrangements are much more efficiently packed than in a simple cubic structure, occupying about 68% of the total volume. Isomorphous metals with a BCC structure include K, Ba, Cr, Mo, W, and Fe at room temperature. (Elements or compounds that crystallize with the same structure are said to be isomorphous.)

Many other metals, such as aluminum, copper, and lead, crystallize in an arrangement that has a cubic unit cell with atoms at all of the corners and at the centers of each face, as illustrated in Figure 6. This arrangement is called a face-centered cubic (FCC) solid. A FCC unit cell contains four atoms: one-eighth of an atom at each of the eight corners (8 x ⅛ = 1 atom from the corners) and one-half of an atom on each of the six faces  (6 x ½ = 3 atoms from the faces). The atoms at the corners touch the atoms in the centers of the adjacent faces along the face diagonals of the cube. Because the atoms are on identical lattice points, they have identical environments.

Three images are shown. The first image shows a cube with black dots at each corner and red dots in the center of each face of the cube while the second image is composed of eight spheres that are stacked together to form a cube with six more spheres, one located on each face of the structure. Dots at the center of each corner sphere are connected to form a cube shape. The name under this image reads “Face-centered cubic structure.” The third image is the same as the second, but only shows the portions of the spheres that lie inside the cube shape.
Figure 6. A face-centered cubic solid has atoms at the corners and, as the name implies, at the centers of the faces of its unit cells. Source: OpenStax Chemistry 2e

Atoms in an FCC arrangement are packed as closely together as possible, with atoms occupying 74% of the volume. This structure is also called cubic closest packing (CCP). In CCP, there are three repeating layers of hexagonally arranged atoms. Each atom contacts six atoms in its own layer, three in the layer above, and three in the layer below. In this arrangement, each atom touches 12 near neighbors, and therefore has a coordination number of 12. The fact that FCC and CCP arrangements are equivalent may not be immediately obvious, but why they are actually the same structure is illustrated in Figure 7.

Three images are shown. In the first image, a side view shows a layer of blue spheres, labeled “C” stacked on top of, and sitting in between the gaps in a second layer that is composed of green spheres, labeled “B,” which are sitting atop a purple layer of spheres labeled “A.” A label below this image reads “Side view.” The second image shows a top view of the same layers of spheres, where the top layer is “C,” the second layer is “B” and the lowest layer is “C.” This image is labeled “Top view” and written under this is the phrase “Cubic closest packed structure.” The third image shows an upper view of the side of a cube composed of two sets of the repeating layers shown in the other images. The layers are arranged “C, B, A, C, B, A, C” and the phrase written under this image reads “Rotated view.”
Figure 7. A CCP arrangement consists of three repeating layers (ABCABC…) of hexagonally arranged atoms. Atoms in a CCP structure have a coordination number of 12 because they contact six atoms in their layer, plus three atoms in the layer above and three atoms in the layer below. By rotating our perspective, we can see that a CCP structure has a unit cell with a face containing an atom from layer A at one corner, atoms from layer B across a diagonal (at two corners and in the middle of the face), and an atom from layer C at the remaining corner. This is the same as a face-centered cubic arrangement. Source: OpenStax Chemistry 2e

Because closer packing maximizes the overall attractions between atoms and minimizes the total intermolecular energy, the atoms in most metals pack in this manner. We find two types of closest packing in simple metallic crystalline structures: CCP, which we have already encountered, and hexagonal closest packing (HCP) shown in Figure 8. Both consist of repeating layers of hexagonally arranged atoms. In both types, a second layer (B) is placed on the first layer (A) so that each atom in the second layer is in contact with three atoms in the first layer. The third layer is positioned in one of two ways. In HCP, atoms in the third layer are directly above atoms in the first layer (i.e., the third layer is also type A), and the stacking consists of alternating type A and type B close-packed layers (i.e., ABABAB⋯). In CCP, atoms in the third layer are not above atoms in either of the first two layers (i.e., the third layer is type C), and the stacking consists of alternating type A, type B, and type C close-packed layers (i.e., ABCABCABC⋯). About two–thirds of all metals crystallize in closest-packed arrays with coordination numbers of 12. Metals that crystallize in an HCP structure include Cd, Co, Li, Mg, Na, and Zn, and metals that crystallize in a CCP structure include Ag, Al, Ca, Cu, Ni, Pb, and Pt.

Two images are shown. The first image, labeled “Hexagonal closest packed,” shows seven green spheres arranged in a circular sheet lying atop another sheet that is the same except the spheres are purple. The second sheet is offset just a bit so that the spheres of the top sheet lie in the grooves of the second sheet. Two more alternating green and purple layers of spheres lie below the first pair. The second image shows seven blue spheres, labeled “Layer C,” arranged in a circular sheet laying atop another sheet, labeled “Layer B” that is the same except the spheres are green. The second sheet is offset just a bit so that the spheres of the top sheet lie in the grooves of the second sheet. Two more alternating purple and then blue layers of spheres lie below the first pair. The purple layer is labeled “Layer A” and the phrase written below this image reads “Cubic closest packed.”
Figure 8. In both types of closest packing, atoms are packed as compactly as possible. Hexagonal closest packing consists of two alternating layers (ABABAB…). Cubic closest packing consists of three alternating layers (ABCABCABC…). Source: OpenStax Chemistry 2e

In general, a unit cell is defined by the lengths of three axes (ab, and c) and the angles (αβ, and γ) between them, as illustrated in Figure 9. The axes are defined as being the lengths between points in the space lattice. Consequently, unit cell axes join points with identical environments.

A cube is shown where each corner has a black dot drawn on it. A circle in the bottom of the cube is composed of three double-ended arrows. The left top of this circle is labeled “alpha,” the top right is labeled “beta” and the bottom is labeled “gamma.” The bottom left corner of the cube is labeled “a” while the bottom of the back face is labeled “b” and the top, back, left corner is labeled “c.”
Figure 9. A unit cell is defined by the lengths of its three axes (ab, and c) and the angles (αβ, and γ) between the axes. Source: OpenStax Chemistry 2e

There are seven different lattice systems, some of which have more than one type of lattice, for a total of fourteen different unit cells, which have the shapes shown in Figure 10.

A table is composed of two columns and eight rows. The header row reads “System / Axes / Angles” and “Unit Cells .” The first column reads “Cubic, a equals b equals c, alpha equals beta equals gamma equals 90 degrees,” “Tetragonal, a equals b does not equal c, alpha equals beta equals gamma equals 90 degrees,” “Orthorhombic, a does not equal b does not equal c, alpha equals beta equals gamma equals 90 degrees,” “Monoclinic, a does not equal b does not equal c, alpha equals gamma equals 90 degrees, beta does not equal 90 degrees,” “Triclinic, a does not equal b does not equal c, alpha does not equal beta does not equal gamma does not equal 90 degrees,” “Hexagonal, a equals b does not equal c, alpha equals beta equals 90 degrees, gamma equals 120 degrees,” “Rhombohedral, a equals b equals c, alpha equals beta equals gamma does not equal 90 degrees.” The second column is composed of diagrams. The first set of diagrams in the first cell show a cube with spheres at each corner labeled “Simple,” a cube with spheres in each corner and on each face labeled “Face-centered” and a cube with spheres in each corner and one in the center labeled “Body-centered.” The second set of diagrams in the second cell show a vertical rectangle with spheres at each corner labeled “Simple” and a vertical rectangle with spheres in each corner and one in the center labeled “Body-centered.” The third set of diagrams in the third cell show a vertical rectangle with spheres at each corner labeled “Simple,” a vertical rectangle with spheres in each corner and one in the center labeled “Body-centered,” a vertical rectangle with spheres in each corner and one on the top and bottom faces labeled “Base-centered,” and a vertical rectangle with spheres in each corner and one on each face labeled “Face-centered.” The fourth set of diagrams in the fourth cell show a vertical rectangle with spheres at each corner that is slanted to one side labeled “Simple” and a vertical rectangle with spheres in each corner that is slanted to one side and has two spheres in the center is labeled “Body-centered.” The fifth diagrams in the fifth cell show a cube that is slanted with spheres at each corner while the sixth diagram in the sixth cell shows a pair of hexagonal rings that are connected together to form a six-sided shape with spheres at each corner. The seventh diagram in the seventh cell shows a rectangle that is slanted with spheres at each corner.
Figure 10. There are seven different lattice systems and 14 different unit cells. Source: OpenStax Chemistry 2e

Source:

Flowers, P., Theopold, K., Langley, R., & Robinson, W. R. (2019, February 14). Chemistry 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/books/chemistry-2e

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