X-ray crystallography uses the physical phenomenon of diffraction of electromagnetic radiation. Diffraction occurs when light passes through a slit with size comparable to its wavelength. When the light passes through the slit it is spread out. When several slits are present light from different slits may hit the target no longer in phase. When the beams of light are in phase it causes high intensity to be observed. When the light is out of phase by 180 degrees than the waves destructively interfere with each other and causes no intensity to be detected. This constructive and destructive interference is observed when light passes through a series of slits. When this situation occurs the pattern of differing intensities is called a diffraction pattern. This phenomenon can be used to determine the placement of objects by determining the space in between. Since crystals contain an ordered arrangement of atoms, a diffraction pattern can be created. Using this diffraction pattern the arrangement of structures within the crystal can be determined. The phenomenon is only experienced when the wavelength of the electromagnetic radiation is comparable to the slit size. Because of this to determine the structure of molecules, in a crystal, electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength of about 2- 20 Å is used. Electromagnetic radiation with this wavelength is in the x-ray region of the electromagnetic spectrum.
Calculations allow the determination of the distance between the planes of a crystalline lattice. The major equation that is used in crystallographic studies is the Bragg equation. The Bragg equation is defined as nλ=2*d*sin θ; where n is the order of diffraction, d is the distance between planes, λ is wavelength of the x-rays, and θ is the angle. Gathering information at several angles and putting the information together allows the overall structure of the crystal to be determined.
X-ray crystallography is not a product of this generation. The use of x-rays to determine a crystalline structure was first explored by William and Lawrence Bragg in 1913. However, the most famous use of early x-ray diffraction was the discovery of the alpha helix shape of DNA. When x-ray crystallography was first performed the intensities of the x-rays was recorded using photographic film. Now the use of semiconductor array detectors has made the data collection process much faster and easier. Currently, the collection of x-ray diffraction data is much faster because of the use of computers. To determine the structure, many data points must be collected at many angles. Computers are also able to change the angle and store more information than in the past.
One thing to consider when using this technique is the availability of an energy source. There are several sources available to produce x-rays. The types of sources that are commonly used are x-ray tubes, radioisotopes, and synchrotron...