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Tetrahedral and Octahedral Sites in Closest Packing

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Tetrahedral and Octahedral Sites in Closest Packing

Tetrahedral and octahedral sites in closest packing can be occupied by other atoms or ions in crystal structures of salts and alloys. Thus, recognizing their existence and their geometrical constrains help the study and interpretation of crystal chemistry. The packing of spheres and the formation of tetrahedral and octahedral sites or holes are shown below.

Whenever you put four (4) spheres together touching each other, you've got a tetrahedral arrangement of spheres. The space in the center is called a tetrahedral site. The octahedral site is formed by six spheres. These sites are also called holes in some literature, and they are shown in the diagrams above.

Example 1

What is the radius of the largest sphere that can be placed in a tetrahedral hole without pushing the spheres apart?

Suggestion for solution
To solve a problem of this type, we need to construct a model for the analysis. The following statement explicitly tells you how to construct such a model.

Use the diagram shown here as a starting point, and construct a tetrahedral arrangement by placing four spheres of radius R at alternate corners of a cube. Once complete, work out the followin:

Example 2

What is the radius of the largest sphere that can be placed in an octahedral hole without pushing the spheres apart?

The octahedral hole is located at the center of any four spheres that form a square. If we represent the radius of a ball fitting in the octahedral holes by r, and the radius of the sphere as R, then we have the relationship:

r + R = (1/Ö2) (2 R)
r / R = Ö2 - 1
      = 0.414

The implication:
Pure geometric consideration shows that only small balls fit in the tetrahedral holes of packed spheres. However, if the radii of cations are smaller than 0.225 R, the structure of having ions in the tetrahedral site is unstable. The anions may be pushed apart slightly to reduce the repulsion by fitting a cation in the tetrahedral site.

For ionic crystal structure consideration, the cations are usually smaller than anions. Cations fitting into the tetrahedral sites cannot be smaller than 0.225 R. Usually, most ions are slightly larger than 0.225 R, but smaller than 0.414 R. In such cases, the cation coordination is tetrahedral, and a typical structure is ZnS, although covalent bonding is also involved in ZnS. The animated diagram is a model of ZnS structure.

When the cation radii are greater or equal to 0.414 R, but less than 0.732 R, the cations occupy the octahedral sites. Sodium chloride is one such structure, and it serves as an important structure type.

If the cations are large such that r > 0.732 R, the cation will have a cubic coordination of 8. The strcture is typified by CsCl.

The above discussion is summarized below:
r/R0.225between0.414between0.732 <
& number
" tetrahedral
" octahedral

For an interesting, illustrateive and exciting discussion regarding radius ratio and types of inorganic solids, see Structures of Simple Inorganic Solids by Dr. S.J. Heyes. This link is aimed at a higher level than that of a first year chemistry course, but the content is great.

What is the radius of the largest sphere that can be placed in an octahedral hole without pushing the spheres apart?
(Answer: 0.731)

Example 3

Is there a structure in which all the tetrahedral sites are occupied by a different type of atoms or ions?

The outline of a unit cell for PuO2 is shown here, and all the tetrahedral sites are occupied by small O2- ions.

Actually, the crystal structure of UO2 has the same structure as PuO2. A common salt CaF2 also has the same structure, but the fluoride ions are by no means small compared to the calcium ions. However, the Pu4+ and U4+ ions are large compared to the oxygen ions.

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