Tables for
Volume F
Crystallography of biological macromolecules
Edited by E. Arnold, D. M. Himmel and M. G. Rossmann

International Tables for Crystallography (2012). Vol. F, ch. 2.1, pp. 57-58   | 1 | 2 |

Section 2.1.5. Reciprocal space and the Ewald sphere

J. Drentha*

aLaboratory of Biophysical Chemistry, University of Groningen, Nijenborgh 4, 9747 AG Groningen, The Netherlands
Correspondence e-mail:

2.1.5. Reciprocal space and the Ewald sphere

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A most convenient tool in X-ray crystallography is the reciprocal lattice. Unlike real or direct space, reciprocal space is imaginary. The reciprocal lattice is a superior instrument for constructing the X-ray diffraction pattern, and it will be introduced in the following way. Remember that vector S(hkl) is perpendicular to a reflecting plane and has a length [|{\bf S}(hkl)| = 2 \sin \theta/\lambda = 1/d (hkl)] (Section[link]). This will now be applied to the boundary planes of the unit cell: the bc plane or (100), the ac plane or (010) and the ab plane or (001).

  • For the bc plane or (100): indices [h = 1], [k = 0] and [l = 0]; S(100) is normal to this plane and has a length [1/d(100)]. Vector S(100) will be called [{\bf a}^{*}].

  • For the ac plane or (010): indices [h = 0], [k = 1] and [l = 0]; S(010) is normal to this plane and has a length [1/d(010)]. Vector S(010) will be called [{\bf b}^{*}].

  • For the ab plane or (001): indices [h = 0], [k = 0] and [l = 1]; S(001) is normal to this plane and has a length [1/d(001)]. Vector S(001) will be called [{\bf c}^{*}].

From the definition of [{\bf a}^{*}], [{\bf b}^{*}] and [{\bf c}^{*}] and the Laue conditions [equation (],[link] the following properties of the vectors [{\bf a}^{*}], [{\bf b}^{*}] and [{\bf c}^{*}] can be derived:[{\bf a}^{*} \cdot {\bf a} = {\bf a} \cdot {\bf a}^{*} = {\bf a} \cdot {\bf S}(100) = h = 1.]

Similarly[{\bf b}^{*} \cdot {\bf b} = {\bf b} \cdot {\bf S}(010) = k = 1,]and[{\bf c}^{*} \cdot {\bf c} = {\bf c} \cdot {\bf S}(001) = l = 1.]

However, [{\bf a}^{*} \cdot {\bf b} = 0] and [{\bf a}^{*} \cdot {\bf c} = 0] because [{\bf a}^{*}] is perpendicular to the (100) plane, which contains the b and c axes. Correspondingly, [{\bf b}^{*} \cdot {\bf a} = {\bf b}^{*} \cdot {\bf c} = 0] and [{\bf c}^{*} \cdot {\bf a} = {\bf c}^{*} \cdot {\bf b} = 0].

Proposition. The endpoints of the vectors S(hkl) form the points of a lattice constructed with the unit vectors [{\bf a}^{*}], [{\bf b}^{*}] and [{\bf c}^{*}].

Proof. Vector S can be split into its coordinates along the three directions [a^{*}], [b^{*}] and [c^{*}]:[{\bf S} = X \cdot {\bf a}^{*} + Y \cdot {\bf b}^{*} + Z \cdot {\bf c}^{*}. \eqno(]

Our proposition is true if X, Y and Z are whole numbers and indeed they are. Multiply equation ([link] on the left and right side by a.[\matrix{{\bf a} \cdot {\bf S} = &X \cdot {\bf a} \cdot {\bf a}^{*}\ \  + &Y \cdot {\bf a} \cdot {\bf b}^{*}\ \ + &Z \cdot {\bf a} \cdot {\bf c}^{*}\cr\vdots &\vdots &\vdots &\vdots\cr= h &= X \cdot 1 &= 0 &= 0.\cr}]

The conclusion is that [X = h], [Y = k] and [Z = l], and, therefore,[{\bf S} = h \cdot {\bf a}^{*} + k \cdot {\bf b}^{*} + l \cdot {\bf c}^{*}.]

The diffraction by a crystal [equation (][link] is only different from zero if the Laue conditions [equation (][link] are satisfied. All vectors S(hkl) are vectors in reciprocal space ending in reciprocal-lattice points and not in between. Each vector S(hkl) is normal to the set of planes ([hkl]) in real space and has a length [1/d(hkl)] (Fig.[link]


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A two-dimensional real unit cell is drawn together with its reciprocal unit cell. The reciprocal-lattice points are the endpoints of the vectors S(hk) [in three dimensions S(hkl)]; for instance, vector S(11) starts at O and ends at reciprocal-lattice point (11). Reproduced with permission from Drenth (1999[link]). Copyright (1999) Springer-Verlag.

The reciprocal-lattice concept is most useful in constructing the directions of diffraction. The procedure is as follows:

  • Step 1: Draw the vector [{\bf s}_{o}] indicating the direction of the inci­dent beam from a point M to the origin, O, of the reciprocal lattice. As in Section[link], the length of [{\bf s}_{o}] and thus the distance MO is [1/\lambda] (Fig.[link]).


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    The circle is, in fact, a sphere with radius [1/\lambda]. [{\bf s}_{O}] indicates the direction of the incident beam and has a length [1/\lambda]. The diffracted beam is indicated by vector s, which also has a length [1/\lambda]. Only reciprocal-lattice points on the surface of the sphere are in a reflecting position. Reproduced with permission from Drenth (1999[link]). Copyright (1999) Springer-Verlag.

  • Step 2: Construct a sphere with radius [1/\lambda] and centre M. The sphere is called the Ewald sphere. The scattering object is thought to be placed at M.

  • Step 3: Move a reciprocal-lattice point P to the surface of the sphere. Reflection occurs with [{\bf s} = {\bf MP}] as the reflected beam, but only if the reciprocal-lattice point P is on the surface of the sphere, because only then does [{\bf S}(hkl) = {\bf s} - {\bf s}_{o}] (Section[link]). Noncrystalline objects scatter differently. Their scattered waves are not restricted to reciprocal-lattice points passing through the Ewald sphere. They scatter in all directions.

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