In recent years, we have come to appreciate the astounding intricacy of the formation process of minerals from ions in aqueous solutions. The original ‘textbook’ image of these phenomena, stemming from the adaptation of classical nucleation and growth theories, has increased in complexity due to the discovery of a variety of precursor and intermediate species [e.g. 1], including solute clusters (e.g. prenucleation clusters, PNCs), liquid(-like) phases, as well as amorphous and nanocrystalline solids etc. In general, these precursor or intermediate species constitute different, often short-lived, points along the pathway from dissolved ions to the final solids (typically crystals in this context). In this regard synchrotron-based scattering (SAXS/WAXS/HEXD) appears to be the perfect tool to follow in situ and in a time-resolved manner the crystallization pathways because of the temporal and spatial length scales that can be directly accessed with these techniques.
Here, we show how we used scattering to probe the crystallization mechanisms of calcium sulfate. CaSO4 minerals (i.e. gypsum, anhydrite and bassanite) are widespread in natural and industrial environments. During the last several years, a number of studies have revealed indeed that nucleation in the CaSO4-H2O system is non-classical. Our SAXS data demonstrate that gypsum precipitation, involves formation and aggregation of sub-3 nm primary species. These species constitute building blocks of an amorphous precursor phase . Further, we show how in situ high-energy X-ray diffraction experiments and molecular dynamics (MD) simulations can be combined to derive the atomic structure of the primary CaSO4 clusters seen at small-angles . We fitted several plausible structures to the derived pair distribution functions and explored their dynamic properties using unbiased MD simulations based on polarizable force fields. Finally, based on combined SAXS/WAXS, broad-q-range measurements, we show that the process of formation of bassanite, a less hydrated form of CaSO4, is very similar to the formation of gypsum: it also involves the aggregation of small primary species into larger disordered aggregates .
Based on these recent insights we formulated a tentative general model for calcium sulfate precipitation from solution. This model involves primary species that are formed through the assembly of multiple Ca2+ and SO42- ions into nanoclusters. These nanoclusters assemble into poorly ordered (i.e. amorphous) hydrated aggregates, which in turn undergo ordering into coherent crystalline units of either gypsum or bassanite (and possibly anhydrite). Determination of the structure and (meta)stability of the primary species is important from both a fundamental, e.g. establishing a general non-classical nucleation model, and applied perspective; e.g. allow for an improved design of additives for greater control of the nucleation pathway.
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