• atomic force microscopy;
  • crystal growth;
  • metal–organic frameworks;
  • modulator;
  • morphology


Crystal growth of the metal–organic framework MOF-5 was studied by atomic force microscopy (AFM) for the first time. Growth under low supersaturation conditions was found to occur by a two-dimensional or spiral crystal growth mechanism. Observation of developing nuclei during the former reveals growth occurs through a process of nucleation and spreading of metastable and stable sub-layers revealing that MOFs may be considered as dense phase structures in terms of crystal growth, even though they contain sub-layers consisting of ordered framework and disordered non-framework components. These results also support the notion this may be a general mechanism of surface crystal growth at low supersaturation applicable to crystalline nanoporous materials. The crystal growth mechanism at the atomistic level was also seen to vary as a function of the growth solution Zn/H2bdc ratio producing square terraces with steps parallel to the <100> direction or rhombus-shaped terraces with steps parallel to the <110> direction when the Zn/H2bdc ratio was >1 or about 1, respectively. The change in relative growth rates can be explained in terms of changes in the solution species concentrations and their influence on growth at different terrace growth sites. These results were successfully applied to the growth of as-synthesized cube-shaped crystals to increase expression of the {111} faces and to grow octahedral crystals of suitable quality to image using AFM. This modulator-free route to control the crystal morphology of MOF-5 crystals should be applicable to a wide variety of MOFs to achieve the desired morphological control for performance enhancement in applications.