3.5 Symmetry in crystals

Each of the seven crystal systems is characterised by different symmetries. By inspection of the above table we can see that there must be a general decrease in the symmetry from the cubic system down through to the triclinic system. Consequently, the triclinic system is said to have lower symmetry than the cubic system and, conversely, the cubic system higher symmetry than the triclinic system.. In order to understand the basic symmetry elements in crystallography we will initially consider examples of the symmetry elements in a cube (a = b = c, a = b = g = 90° ). The basic symmetry elements are:

Rotation axes of symmetry:

Rotation axes of symmetry are axes which upon rotation reproduce the exact configuration of the crystal. An n-fold rotation axis of symmetry repeats the structure n Arial in one complete 360° rotation. In crystals rotation axes can be sixfold (termed hexad), fourfold (tetrad), threefold (triad), twofold (diad), or onefold (monad). The monad is a trivial since it merely states that upon rotation through 360° the crystal returns to the initial position. A cube contains a number of different tetrads, triads and diads (try and determine the total number in each case):

Centre of symmetry

If every atom in a crystal stucture with coordinates x, y and z is duplicated by an atom at x, y and z, the structure is said to possess a centre of symmetry .

Mirror planes:

Planes which divide crystals into mirror ../Images are termed mirror planes.

Inversion axes of symmetry:

A symmetry type involving a rotation about a line plus an inversion through a point (on the line) is known as an inversion axis of symmetry. In any crystal the operation of an inversion axes of symmetry can always be achieved by a combination of the other symmetry operators in that crystal.

As already stated each of the seven crystal systems have characteristic symmetries. Recognition of these symmetry elements allows us to classify any crystal into the appropriate class. For example the presence of a tetrad indicates either cubic or tetragonal; more than one tetrad and it must be cubic (however, the presence of a tetrad is not the characteristic symmetry element of the cubic system which is, rather, the presence of three triads). Hexads are diagnostic of the hexagonal system, while traids preclude triclinic and monoclinic systems. The triclinic system has no rotational axes of symmetry, except of course the trivial monad. The characteristic symmetry elements in each of the seven groups are listed below:


Three triads


One hexad (// z)


One tetrad (// z)


One triad (// [111])


Three perpendicular diads (// x, y and z)


One diad (// y)