Closest Pack Crystal Structures

The term "closest packed structures" refers to the most tightly packed or space-efficient composition of crystal structures (lattices). Imagine an atom in a crystal lattice as a sphere. While cubes may easily be stacked to fill up all empty space, unfilled space will always exist in the packing of spheres. To maximize the efficiency of packing and minimize the volume of unfilled space, the spheres must be arranged as close as possible to each other. These arrangements are called closest packed structures.

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The packing of spheres can describe the solid structures of crystals. In a crystal structure, the centers of atoms, ions, or molecules lie on the lattice points. Atoms are assumed to be spherical to explain the bonding and structures of metallic crystals. These spherical particles can be packed into different arrangements. In closest packed structures, the arrangement of the spheres are densely packed in order to take up the greatest amount of space possible.


Types of Holes From Close-Packing of Spheres

When a single layer of spheres is arranged into the shape of a hexagon, gaps are left uncovered. The hole formed between three spheres is called a trigonal hole because it resembles a triangle. In the example below, two out of the the six trigonal holes have been highlighted green.

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Once the first layer of spheres is laid down, a second layer may be placed on top of it. The second layer of spheres may be placed to cover the trigonal holes from the first layer. Holes now exist between the first layer (the orange spheres) and the second (the lime spheres), but this time the holes are different. The triangular-shaped hole created over a orange sphere from the first layer is known as a tetrahedral hole. A hole from the second layer that also falls directly over a hole in the first layer is called an octahedral hole.

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Closest Pack Crystal Structures


Hexagonal Closest Packed (HCP)

In a hexagonal closest packed structure, the third layer has the same arrangement of spheres as the first layer and covers all the tetrahedral holes. Since the structure repeats itself after every two layers, the stacking for hcp may be described as "a-b-a-b-a-b." The atoms in a hexagonal closest packed structure efficiently occupy 74% of space while 26% is empty space.

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