Crystal Nucleation in Liquids: Open Questions and Future Challenges in Molecular Dynamics Simulations

Chem Rev. 2016 Jun 22;116(12):7078-116. doi: 10.1021/acs.chemrev.5b00744. Epub 2016 May 26.


The nucleation of crystals in liquids is one of nature's most ubiquitous phenomena, playing an important role in areas such as climate change and the production of drugs. As the early stages of nucleation involve exceedingly small time and length scales, atomistic computer simulations can provide unique insights into the microscopic aspects of crystallization. In this review, we take stock of the numerous molecular dynamics simulations that, in the past few decades, have unraveled crucial aspects of crystal nucleation in liquids. We put into context the theoretical framework of classical nucleation theory and the state-of-the-art computational methods by reviewing simulations of such processes as ice nucleation and the crystallization of molecules in solutions. We shall see that molecular dynamics simulations have provided key insights into diverse nucleation scenarios, ranging from colloidal particles to natural gas hydrates, and that, as a result, the general applicability of classical nucleation theory has been repeatedly called into question. We have attempted to identify the most pressing open questions in the field. We believe that, by improving (i) existing interatomic potentials and (ii) currently available enhanced sampling methods, the community can move toward accurate investigations of realistic systems of practical interest, thus bringing simulations a step closer to experiments.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't