Using the Ocean system, scientists achieve supersaturation in LPEM experiments, revolutionizing pharmaceutical crystallization


Original article by Jennifer Cookman, Victoria Hamilton, Simon Hall and Ursel Bangert

LPEM video showing the pre-crystallization process of flufenamic acid

Whereas classical crystallization deals with layer-by-layer growth of crystals, non-classical crystallization (NCC) involves multiple different crystallization pathways towards the formation of final stable crystals. Although NCC has been widely documented in research, there is still much to be explored regarding the intermediate stages of crystallization and their direct observation. This is especially true for small organic molecules like flufenamic acid (FFA), an anti-inflammatory drug used for the treatment of rheumatic disorders.

Using the DENSsolutions Ocean LPEM system, Dr. Jennifer Cookman from the Bernal Institute in the University of Limerick and her colleagues were able to capture the intermediate pre-crystalline stages of this small organic molecule. This research marks the first ever direct observation of a pharmaceutical material undergoing NCC, highlighting the rising value and importance of in-situ TEM techniques in the pharmaceutical industry. 

The observed processes of NCC

Crystallization is a fundamental process that occurs in nature to produce some of the most common materials in daily life, such as the popular active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) ibuprofen or FFA. Properties such as solubility and bioavailability are linked to the crystal structure of the active compound. Considering APIs are commonly polymorphic, it is important to understand the intermediate stages of their crystallization. Specifically, if we can identify polymorphs with more desirable properties in the intermediate stages of crystallization, then this opens the door to harnessing and potentially directing their formation.

In this study, Dr. Cookman and her colleagues observed in situ the processes involved in the nanoscale crystallization of FFA. As illustrated in the figure below, this process involves four stages: aggregation, coalescence into a metastable entity, nucleus formation, and finally, crystallization.

A summary of the observed processes involved in the nanoscale crystallization of FFA

The researchers observed that FFA begins as a collection of small independent pre-nucleation clusters (PNCs). These PNCs are essentially stable particle clusters that form prior to the nucleation of a solid phase. They were able to follow three notable aggregates of PNCs that each followed the same transformational events. Particularly, after aggregation, these PNCs each independently coalesced, or merged, and formed a metastable phase. After this, the densification and development of a nucleus occurs, leading to the formation of FFA crystals. The processes of coalescence and densification will be further discussed and depicted below.


The aggregation of the PNCs were shown to have occurred prior to the researchers’ initial observations. Therefore the primary transformation observed for the three aggregates was actually that of coalescence. In the image below, you can see clearly that for each of the three selected aggregates, the individual clusters merge to form one cohesive entity after approximately 3 minutes.

A time-lapse of each of the three aggregates of PNCs undergoing coalescence

Densification towards crystallization

Following coalescence is the densification and development of a nucleus. This nucleus is formed by the successive sacrifice of surrounding material, leading to the formation of a new crystalline-like object, significantly more electron dense than before. Whereas coalescence took around 3 minutes, this densification occurred rapidly in under 10 seconds. The image and three videos below depict this rapid pre-crystallization process of FFA. 

A frame-by-frame summary of the three aggregates illustrating the pre-crystallization process of FFA

Aggregate 1

Aggregate 2

Aggregate 3

Novelty in findings

This research contributes academically in that the direct observations reported for the crystallization of FFA reveal insightful new information about the potential pathways towards crystallization. Moreover, it highlights the need to further investigate the nucleation and resulting crystallization of other small organic molecules via in situ techniques such as LPEM. LPEM presents itself as a required and complementary tool to not only comprehend but also probe chemistry at the nanoscale. This is true especially in regards to the crystallization of pharmaceutical ingredients, in which the development of the end product highly depends on controlling at the molecular building block level. 

The novelty of this research also lies in that it sheds light on the crystallization and nucleation of pharmaceutical products, providing the necessary information to further refine industrial-scale processes. If we can observe and understand the crystallization pathways that small organic molecular crystals like FFA take, we can better streamline production activities and develop effective manufacturing processes for generic drugs. It is precisely our goal at DENSsolutions to enable researchers like Dr. Jennifer Cookman to continue to bridge gaps in research using our solutions and uncover results that can impact this world, in the pharmaceutical industry and beyond.  

DENSsolutions Jennifer Cookman

“The DENSsolutions Ocean holder is a simple solution to native environment metrology that has the potential to revolutionize how we view pharmaceutical crystallization.”


“The DENSsolutions Ocean holder is a simple solution to native environment metrology that has the potential to revolutionize how we view pharmaceutical crystallization.”

Dr. Jennifer Cookman
Post Doctoral Researcher | University of Limerick

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