2021-03-26, 19:05, Friday

I promised a few paragraphs about x-ray diffraction, so here it goes. This is mostly unedited because I’m tired and lazy.

Basically, light has a property to undergo what’s called diffraction: shine a laser beam on a grated piece of plastic and beam will split into an uneven number of new beams. Using this pattern and some trigonometry you can calculate the wavelength of light if you know how fine the grating is and the angle between beams. This works only when wavelength is a few times smaller than the grating size.

Now, the important bit is that atoms in crystal sort of work like grating. Light reflects from different layers of atoms differently and this forms the same diffraction pattern. Since the distance between atomic layers determines the structure of the crystal, we can now measure it using light and some math called Bragg’s law. The only thing we need is a light source with fixed, well-known and very small wavelength. Now, the “grating” in our case is approximately 2-4*10^-10 m, or 2-5 angstrem.

Conveniently, metallic anode, when put in a vacuum and under high voltage, emits high energy photones, generally of a fixed wavelength, corresponding to the valent electron’s excited state. And if we use copper, this wavelength is roughly 1.51 angstrem, which is about what we need.

Now that all elements are in place, we just need to build a complex machinery that will hold our sample, put a piece of copper under a few kilovolts, cool it down simultaneously, while also rotating a detector to capture light intensities under a range of angles. Different lattices will give different diffraction patterns, and one can be calculated from another.

And this is more or less how x-ray diffraction works.

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