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Designing disorder into crystalline materials


Crystals are a state of matter characterized by periodic order. Yet, crystalline materials can harbour disorder in many guises, such as non-repeating variations in composition, atom displacements, bonding arrangements, molecular orientations, conformations, charge states, orbital occupancies or magnetic structure. Disorder can sometimes be random but, more usually, it is correlated. Frontier research into disordered crystals now seeks to control and exploit the unusual patterns that persist within these correlated disordered states in order to access functional responses inaccessible to conventional crystals. In this Review, we survey the core design principles that guide targeted control over correlated disorder. We show how these principles — often informed by long-studied statistical mechanical models — can be applied across an unexpectedly broad range of materials, including organics, supramolecular assemblies, oxide ceramics and metal–organic frameworks. We conclude with a forward-looking discussion of the exciting link between disorder and function in responsive media, thermoelectrics and topological phases.

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Fig. 1: Canonical disordered crystals.
Fig. 2: Common local degrees of freedom, interactions and lattice types.
Fig. 3: Models of disorder and competing interactions.
Fig. 4: Correlated disorder from electronic instabilities and compositional complexity.
Fig. 5: Correlated disorder by self-assembly.
Fig. 6: Molecular shape and low-energy dynamics.
Fig. 7: Data storage in disordered states.


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A.S. and A.L.G. gratefully acknowledge financial support from the E.R.C. (grant no. 788144) and the Leverhulme Trust (UK) (grant no. RPG-2015-292). A.S. thanks the Swiss National Science Foundation for Ambizione and Postdoc Mobility Fellowships (PZ00P2_180035 and P2EZP2_155608). A.L.G. acknowledges many useful discussions with collaborators past and present.

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Material that exhibits a strong, reversible entropy change under applied magnetic field.


Materials with strong dielectric response characterized by broad frequency-dependent maximum of dielectric permittivity as a function of temperature and the absence of macroscopic symmetry breaking.

Frustrated magnetism

The suppression of conventional order in magnetic materials by an incompatibility between the geometric arrangement of interacting spins and the nature of the interactions themselves.


Characterized by axial order.


Topologically stable non-collinear (‘knot’) spin textures.


Small polaron quasiparticles characterized by the delocalization of electrons across a linear triplet of atoms.


Materials that exhibit a strong, reversible entropy change under applied pressure.

Rigid-unit mode

Collective distortion of a network of connected polyhedra that propagates without geometric distortion of the polyhedra themselves.

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Simonov, A., Goodwin, A.L. Designing disorder into crystalline materials. Nat Rev Chem 4, 657–673 (2020).

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