Crystal twinning occurs when two separate crystals share some of the same crystal lattice points in a symmetrical manner. The result is an intergrowth of two separate crystals in a variety of specific configurations. A twin boundary or composition surface separates the two crystals. Crystallographers classify twinned crystals by a number of twin laws. These twin laws are specific to the crystal system. The type of twinning can be a diagnostic tool in mineral identification.

Twinning can often be a problem in X-ray crystallography, as a twinned crystal does not produce a simple diffraction pattern.

Types of twinning

Simple twinned crystals may be contact twins or penetration twins. Contact twins share a single composition surface often appearing as mirror images across the boundary. Plagioclase, quartz, gypsum, and spinel often exhibit contact twinning. Merohedral twinning occurs when the lattices of the contact twins superimpose in three dimensions, such as by relative rotation of one twin from the other. An example is metazeunerite. In penetration twins the individual crystals have the appearance of passing through each other in a symmetrical manner. Orthoclase, staurolite, pyrite, and fluorite often show penetration twinning.

Galvanized surface with macroscopic crystalline features. Twin boundaries are visible as striations within each crystallite, most prominently in the bottom-left and top-right.
If several twin crystal parts are aligned by the same twin law they are referred to as multiple or repeated twins. If these multiple twins are aligned in parallel they are called polysynthetic twins. When the multiple twins are not parallel they are cyclic twins. Albite, calcite, and pyrite often show polysynthetic twinning. Closely spaced polysynthetic twinning is often observed as striations or fine parallel lines on the crystal face. Rutile, aragonite, cerussite, and chrysoberyl often exhibit cyclic twinning, typically in a radiating pattern.

Twinned crystals (e.g., see Figure ) may be described as follows:

Simple twins – composed of only two parts

Multiple twins – composed of more than two orientations

Contact twins – this occur if a definite composition plane is present

Penetration twins – occur if two or more parts of a crystal appear to interpenetrate each other with the surface between the parts being indefinable and irregular (Figure ).

Polysynthetic twinning – occurs when three or more individuals are repeated alternately on the same twinned plane. If the individuals of polysynthetic twins are thin plates, the twinning is called lamellar e.g. plagioclase feldspars.

Modes of formation

There are three modes of formation of twinned crystals. Growth twins are the result of an interruption or change in the lattice during formation or growth due to a possible deformation from a larger substituting ion. Annealing or transformation twins are the result of a change in crystal system during cooling as one form becomes unstable and the crystal structure must re-organize or transform into another more stable form. Deformation or gliding twins are the result of stress on the crystal after the crystal has formed. If a FCC metal like aluminum experiences extreme stresses, it will experience twinning as seen in the case of explosions. Deformation twinning is a common result of regional metamorphism.

Crystals that grow adjacent to each other may be aligned to resemble twinning. This parallel growth simply reduces system energy and is not twinning.

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