In the application of classical nucleation theory (CNT) and all other theoretical models of crystallization of liquids and glasses it is always assumed that nucleation proceeds only after the supercooled liquid or the glass have completed structural relaxation processes towards the metastable equilibrium state. Only employing such an assumption, the thermodynamic driving force of crystallization and the surface tension can be determined in the way it is commonly performed. The present paper is devoted to the theoretical treatment of a different situation, when nucleation proceeds concomitantly with structural relaxation. To treat the nucleation kinetics theoretically for such cases, we need adequate expressions for the thermodynamic driving force and the surface tension accounting for the contributions caused by the deviation of the supercooled liquid from metastable equilibrium. In the present paper, such relations are derived. They are expressed via deviations of structural order parameters from their equilibrium values. Relaxation processes result in changes of the structural order parameters with time. As a consequence, the thermodynamic driving force and surface tension, and basic characteristics of crystal nucleation, such as the work of critical cluster formation and the steady-state nucleation rate, also become time-dependent. We show that this scenario may be realized in the vicinity and below the glass transition temperature, and it may occur only if diffusion (controlling nucleation) and viscosity (controlling the alpha-relaxation process) in the liquid decouple. Analytical estimates are illustrated and confirmed by numerical computations for a model system. The theory is successfully applied to the interpretation of experimental data. Several further consequences of this newly developed theoretical treatment are discussed in detail. In line with our previous investigations, we reconfirm that only when the characteristic times of structural relaxation are of similar order of magnitude or longer than the characteristic times of crystal nucleation, elastic stresses evolving in nucleation may significantly affect this process. Advancing the methods of theoretical analysis of elastic stress effects on nucleation, for the first time expressions are derived for the dependence of the surface tension of critical crystallites on elastic stresses. As the result, a comprehensive theoretical description of crystal nucleation accounting appropriately for the effects of deviations of the liquid from the metastable states and of relaxation on crystal nucleation of glass-forming liquids, including the effect of simultaneous stress evolution and stress relaxation on nucleation, is now available. As one of its applications, this theoretical treatment provides a new tool for the explanation of the low-temperature anomaly in nucleation in silicate and polymer glasses (the so-called “breakdown” of CNT at temperatures below the temperature of the maximum steady-state nucleation rate). We show that this anomaly results from much more complex features of crystal nucleation in glasses caused by deviations from metastable equilibrium (resulting in changes of the thermodynamic driving force, the surface tension, and the work of critical cluster formation, in the necessity to account of structural relaxation and stress effects) than assumed so far. If these effects are properly accounted for, then CNT appropriately describes both the initial, the intermediate, and the final states of crystal nucleation.
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