Self-assembly is a process in which a disordered system of pre-existing components forms an organized structure or pattern as a consequence of specific, local interactions among the components themselves, without external direction. When the constitutive components are molecules, the process is termed molecular self-assembly.

AFM imaging of self-assembly of 2-aminoterephthalic acid molecules on (104)-oriented calcite.[3]
Self-assembly of lipids (a), proteins (b), and (c) SDS-cyclodextrin complexes. SDS is a surfactant with a hydrocarbon tail (yellow) and a SO4 head (blue and red), while cyclodextrin is a saccharide ring (green C and red O atoms).
Transmission electron microscopy image of an iron oxide nanoparticle. Regularly arranged dots within the dashed border are columns of Fe atoms. Left inset is the corresponding electron diffraction pattern. Scale bar: 10 nm.[1]
Iron oxide nanoparticles can be dispersed in an organic solvent (toluene). Upon its evaporation, they may self-assemble (left and right panels) into micron-sized mesocrystals (center) or multilayers (right). Each dot in the left image is a traditional "atomic" crystal shown in the image above. Scale bars: 100 nm (left), 25 μm (center), 50 nm (right).[1]
STM image of self-assembled Br4-pyrene molecules on Au(111) surface (top) and its model (bottom; pink spheres are Br atoms).[2]

Self-assembly can be classified as either static or dynamic. In static self-assembly, the ordered state forms as a system approaches equilibrium, reducing its free energy. However, in dynamic self-assembly, patterns of pre-existing components organized by specific local interactions are not commonly described as "self-assembled" by scientists in the associated disciplines. These structures are better described as "self-organized", although these terms are often used interchangeably.

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