Can Amorphous Nuclei Grow Crystalline Clathrates? The Size and Crystallinity of Critical Clathrate Nuclei

LC Jacobson and V Molinero, JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN CHEMICAL SOCIETY, 133, 6458-6463 (2011).

DOI: 10.1021/ja201403q

Recent studies reveal that amorphous intermediates are involved in the formation of clathrate hydrates under conditions of high driving force, raising two questions: first, how could amorphous nuclei grow into crystalline clathrates and, second, whether amorphous nuclei are intermediates in the formation of clathrate crystals for temperatures close to equilibrium. In this work, we address these two questions through large-scale molecular simulations. We investigate the stability and growth of amorphous and crystalline clathrate nuclei and assess the thermodynamics and kinetic factors that affect the crystallization pathway of clathrates. Our calculations show that the dissociation temperature of amorphous clathrates is just 10% lower than for the crystals, facilitating the formation of metastable amorphous intermediates. We find that, at any temperatures, the critical crystalline nuclei are smaller than critical amorphous nuclei. The temperature dependence of the critical nucleus size is well described by the Gibbs-Thomson relation, from which we extract a liquid-crystal surface tension in excellent agreement with experiments. Our analysis suggests that at high driving force the amorphous nuclei may be kinetically favored over crystalline nuclei because of lower free energy barriers of formation. We investigated the role of the initial structure and size of the nucleus on the subsequent growth of the clathrates, and found that both amorphous and sI crystalline nuclei yield crystalline clathrates. Interestingly, growth of the metastable sII crystal polymorph is always favored over the most stable sI crystal, revealing kinetic control of the growth and indicating that a further step of ripening from sII to sI is needed to reach the stable crystal phase. The latter results are in agreement with the observed metastable formation of sII CO2 and CH, clathrate hydrates and their slow conversion to sI under experimental conditions.

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