The crystallization of a large amount of material from a single point of nucleation results in a single crystal. In engineering materials, single crystals are produced only under carefully controlled conditions. The expense of producing single crystal materials is only justified for special applications, such as turbine engine blades, solar cells, and piezoelectric materials. Normally when a material begins to solidify, multiple crystals begin to grow in the liquid and a polycrystalline (more than one crystal) solid forms.

The moment a crystal begins to grow is know as nucleation and the point where it occurs is the nucleation point. At the solidification temperature, atoms of a liquid, such as melted metal, begin to bond together at the nucleation points and start to form crystals. The final sizes of the individual crystals depend on the number of nucleation points. The crystals increase in size by the progressive addition of atoms and grow until they impinge upon adjacent growing crystal.

 As a material solidifies, crystals begin to nucleate. The crystals grow with the formation of more unit cells until they come into contact with another growing crystal. The place where the crystals touch are called grain boundaries.

a) Nucleation of crystals, b) crystal growth, c) irregular grains form as crystals grow together, d) grain boundaries as seen in a microscope.

In engineering materials, a crystal is usually referred to as a grain. A grain is merely a crystal without smooth faces because its growth was impeded by contact with another grain or a boundary surface. The interface formed between grains is called a grain boundary. The atoms between the grains (at the grain boundaries) have no crystalline structure and are said to be disordered.

Grains are sometimes large enough to be visible under an ordinary light microscope or even to the unaided eye. The spangles that are seen on newly galvanized metals are grains. Rapid cooling generally results in more nucleation points and smaller grains (a fine grain structure). Slow cooling generally results in larger grains which will have lower strength, hardness and ductility.


 Dendrites form in directions determined by their crystal planes.In metals, the crystals that form in the liquid during freezing generally follow a pattern consisting of a main branch with many appendages. A crystal with this morphology slightly resembles a pine tree and is called a dendrite, which means branching. The formation of dendrites occurs because crystals grow in defined planes due to the crystal lattice they create. The figure to the right shows how a cubic crystal can grow in a melt in three dimensions, which correspond to the six faces of the cube. For clarity of illustration, the adding of unit cells with continued solidification from the six faces is shown simply as lines. Secondary dendrite arms branch off the primary arm, and tertiary arms off the secondary arms and etcetera.

 Dendrites look like the tops of pine trees: they have wide bases that come to a point.During freezing of a polycrystalline material, many dendritic crystals form and grow until they eventually become large enough to impinge upon each other. Eventually, the interdendriticspaces between the dendrite arms crystallize to yield a more regular crystal. The original dendritic pattern may not be apparent when examining the microstructure of a material. However, dendrites can often be seen in solidification voids that sometimes occur in castings or welds, as shown to the right..


Most materials contract or shrink during solidification and cooling. Shrinkage is the result of:

  • Contraction of the liquid as it cools prior to its solidification
  • Contraction during phase change from a liquid to solid
  • Contraction of the solid as it continues to cool to ambient temperature.

Shrinkage can sometimes cause cracking to occur in component as it solidifies. Since the coolest area of a volume of liquid is where it contacts a mold or die, solidification usually begins first at this surface. As the crystals grow inward, the material continues to shrink. If the solid surface is too rigid and will not deform to accommodate the internal shrinkage, the stresses can become high enough to exceed the tensile strength of the material and cause a crack to form. Shrinkage cavitation sometimes occurs because as a material solidifies inward, shrinkage occurred to such an extent that there is not enough atoms present to fill the available space and a void is left.