Advances in understanding damage by salt crystallization

Rosa M. Espinosa-Marzal, George W. Scherer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The single most important cause of the deterioration of monuments in the Mediterranean basin, and elsewhere around the world, is the crystallization of salt within the pores of the stone. Considerable advances have been made in recent years in elucidating the fundamental mechanisms responsible for salt damage. As a result, new methods of treatment are being proposed that offer the possibility of attacking the cause of the problem, rather than simply treating the symptoms. In this Account, we review the thermodynamics and kinetics of crystallization, then examine how a range of technological innovations have been applied experimentally to further the current understanding of in-pore crystallization. We close with a discussion of how computer modeling now provides particularly valuable insight, including quantitative estimates of both the interaction forces between the mineral and the crystal and the stresses induced in the material. Analyzing the kinetics and thermodynamics of crystal growth within the pores of a stone requires sensitive tools used in combination. For example, calorimetry quantifies the amount of salt that precipitates in the pores of a stone during cooling, and dilatometric measurements on a companion sample reveal the stress exerted by the salt. Synchrotron X-rays can penetrate the stone and identify the metastable phases that often appear in the first stages of crystallization. Atomic force microscopy and environmental scanning electron microscopy permit study of the nanometric liquid film that typically lies between salt and stone; this film controls the magnitude of the pressure exerted and the kinetics of relaxation of the stress. These experimental advances provide validation for increasingly advanced simulations, using continuum models of reactive transport on a macroscopic scale and molecular dynamics on the atomic scale. Because of the fundamental understanding of the damage mechanisms that is beginning to emerge, it is possible to devise methods for protecting monuments and sculptures. For example, chemical modification of the stone can alter the repulsive forces that stabilize the liquid film between the salt and mineral surfaces, thereby reducing the stress that the salt can generate. Alternatively, molecules can be introduced into the pores of the stone that inhibit the nucleation or growth of salt crystals. Many challenges remain, however, particularly in understanding the complex interactions between salts, the role of metastable phases, the mechanism of crack initiation and growth, and the role of biofilms.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)897-905
Number of pages9
JournalAccounts of chemical research
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 15 2010
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Chemistry


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