The phase behaviors of crystalline solids embedded within nanoporous matrices have been studied for decades. Classic nucleation theory conjectures that phase stability is determined by the balance between an unfavorable surface free energy and a stabilizing volume free energy. The size constraint imposed by nanometer-scale pores during crystallization results in large ratios of surface area to volume, which are reflected in crystal properties. For example, melting points and enthalpies of fusion of nanoscale crystals can differ drastically from their bulk scale counterparts. Moreover, confinement within nanoscale pores can dramatically influence crystallization pathways and crystal polymorphism, particularly when the pore dimensions are comparable to the critical size of an emerging nucleus. At this tipping point, the surface and volume free energies are in delicate balance and polymorph stability rankings may differ from bulk. Recent investigations have demonstrated that confined crystallization can be used to screen for and control polymorphism. In the food, pharmaceutical, explosive, and dye technological sectors, this understanding and control over polymorphism is critical both for function and for regulatory compliance.This Account reviews recent studies of the polymorphic and thermotropic properties of crystalline materials embedded in the nanometer-scale pores of porous glass powders and porous block-polymer-derived plastic monoliths. The embedded nanocrystals exhibit an array of phase behaviors, including the selective formation of metastable amorphous and crystalline phases, thermodynamic stabilization of normally metastable phases, size-dependent polymorphism, formation of new polymorphs, and shifts of thermotropic relationships between polymorphs. Size confinement also permits the measurement of thermotropic properties that cannot be measured in bulk materials using conventional methods. Well-aligned cylindrical pores of the polymer monoliths also allow determination and manipulation of nanocrystal orientation. In these systems, the constraints imposed by the pore walls result in a competition between crystal nuclei that favors those with the fastest growth direction aligned with the pore axis.Collectively, the examples described in this Account provide substantial insight into crystallization at a size scale that is difficult to realize by other means. Moreover, the behaviors resulting from nanoscopic confinement are remarkably consistent for a wide range of compounds, suggesting a reliable approach to studying the phase behaviors of compounds at the nanoscale. Newly emerging classes of porous materials promise expanded explorations of crystal growth under confinement and new routes to controlling crystallization outcomes.
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