Nucleation of FAU and LTA Zeolites from Heterogeneous Aluminosilicate Precursors

Matthew D. Oleksiak, Jennifer A. Soltis, Marlon T. Conato, R. Lee Penn, Jeffrey D. Rimer

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92 Scopus citations


The nucleation of many natural, biogenic, and synthetic crystals involves the initial formation of metastable precursors that provides a kinetic pathway for an amorphous-to-crystalline transformation. This nonclassical mechanism is believed to be the dominant crystallization pathway for microporous zeolites. Despite significant research on zeolite growth mechanisms, molecular level details regarding the assembly, physicochemical properties, and structural evolution of amorphous (alumino)silicate precursors remain elusive. Here we use a combination of diffraction, scattering, and microscopy techniques to characterize the amorphous precursors that assemble and evolve during the synthesis of zeolites FAU and LTA - two materials that are widely used in commercial applications such as catalysis, adsorption, separations, and ion-exchange. Nucleation occurs by a two-step mechanism involving the initial formation of aggregates that serve as heterogeneous sites for nucleation. Using colloidal silica as a reagent, we observe that precursors are comprised of heterogeneous silica and alumina domains due in part to the negligible dissolution of silica during room temperature aging. This indicates substantial Si-O-Si bond breakage must occur during hydrothermal treatment with concomitant exchange of soluble alumina species to achieve a final crystalline product with a Si/Al ratio = 1.0-2.5. All syntheses were performed with molar compositions of Si/Al ≥ 2.0, which favors the formation of FAU; however, we observe that certain growth conditions are capable of creating a "false" environment (i.e., Al-rich regions) that favors LTA nucleation, followed by intercrystalline transformation to FAU. Time-resolved ex situ transmission electron microscopy of extracted solids during zeolite crystallization indicates that nucleation occurs on the exterior surface of precursors. This observation is consistent with our proposed hypothesis that posits exterior surfaces are more energetically favorable sites for nucleation compared to the particle interior on the basis of confinement effects. Given that numerous zeolite syntheses involve the initial formation of metastable precursors with heterogeneous composition, the pathway for nucleation proposed in this study may prove to be generalizable to other zeolite structures and related materials.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4906-4916
Number of pages11
JournalChemistry of Materials
Issue number14
StatePublished - Jul 26 2016

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© 2016 American Chemical Society.


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