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crystals of potasium phoaphate incorporating the chemical amaranth dye

Amaranth Potassium Phosphate Crystals

Potassium phosphate crystal chemistry

This weekend I grew some potassium phosphate crystals with amaranth dye. I did this back in 2001 in Bart Kahr’s O-Chem class and remembered it recently. It’s a fun demonstration of the chemistry of crystal growth, the different chemistry of the crystal faces, and it’s pretty. I found Prof. Kahr’s paper[1] that gives a “foolproof recipe” and it did not disappoint. Even this fool could make it work.

As the crystals grow, each face of the crystal has a unique topology. The corners are growing with a different spacing of atoms than the faces, and the faces can be different from each other. Sometimes, the faces have the right spacing to allow a dye molecule to stick. In this case, there is a big difference between how well amaranth dye sticks to each face. So as the crystal rows, it only gets dyed in two quadrants.

We can learn about chemistry from crystals

Crystals are super useful to chemists. A good crystal of a chemical can be used to get x-ray diffraction data on the structure of the chemical. The most detailed structures are derived from x-ray diffraction data.

Knowing how molecules assemble into crystals is also really important to materials scientists. If you want to design a material from its atoms, you need to know how they are going to come together. I’ve been working on making an iron battery and reading up on battery chemistry. One of the interesting papers I read talked about designing a cathode material to hold sodium atoms. The chemists designed the “holes” in the structure to hold sodium atoms – and they needed to know how the other atoms would come together to make that shape.

Why chemically dyed crystals are cool

Of course, dyed crystals just look cool. Maybe that’s silly, but if you’re trying to teach organic chemistry, it’s good to have something visual and striking to hold on to. A lot of O-chem is solvents and white powder, so anything that sticks in the memory is a help.

The other reason I think that dyed crystals are so cool is that they dyes can be held still very precisely. One of prof. Kahr’s later papers used a crystal to hold a fluorescent dye in place at a specific orientation. Then they used a fluorescence microscope to look at single dye molecules[2]. I think that’s just really cool. I gather that they are more stable in the crystal than they are in solution.

I also made a time-lapse movie of the crystallization

Instructions (following [1])

  • Dissolve 17 g potassium dihydrogen phosphate (KDP) in 50 ml water with heating. Using a teflon stir bar helps.
  • Dissolve 4 mg amaranth dye in ~1ml of water and add to the mix.
  • Pour into a wide dish and allow to cool and evaporate slowly over ~4-24 hours.


1.Kahr, B. & Vasquez, L. Painting crystals. CrystEngComm 4, 514–516 (2002). http://dx.doi.org/10.1039/B204845K

2.Wustholz, K. L., Kahr, B. & Reid, P. J. Single-Molecule Orientations in Dyed Salt Crystals. J. Phys. Chem. B 109, 16357–16362 (2005).http://dx.doi.org/10.1021/jp053051x