The structure of, and transitions between, liquids, crystals and glasses have commonly been studied with the hard-sphere model, in which the atoms are modelled as spheres that interact only through an infinite repulsion on contact. Suspensions of uniform colloidal polymer particles are good approximations to hard spheres, and so provide an experimental model system for investigating hard-sphere phases. They display a crystallization transition driven by entropy alone. Because the particles are much larger than atoms, and the crystals are weakly bound, gravity plays a significant role in the formation and structure of these colloidal crystals. Here we report the results of microgravity experiments performed on the Space Shuttle Columbia to elucidate the effects of gravity on colloidal crystallization. Whereas in normal gravity colloidal crystals grown just above the volume fraction at melting show a mixture of random stacking of hexagonally close- packed planes (r.h.c.p.) and face-centred cubic (f.c.c.) packing if allowed time to settle, those in microgravity exhibit the r.h.c.p. structure alone, suggesting that the f.c.c. component may be induced by gravity-induced stresses. We also see dendritic growth instabilities that are not evident in normal gravity, presumably because they are disrupted by shear-induced stresses as the crystals settle under gravity. Finally, glassy samples at high volume fraction which fail to crystallize after more than a year on Earth crystallize fully in less than two weeks in microgravity. Clearly gravity masks or alters some of the intrinsic aspects of colloidal crystallization.
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