Abstract The phase-field crystal equation, a parabolic, sixth-order and nonlinear partial differential equation, has generated considerable interest as a possible solution to problems arising in molecular dynamics. Nonetheless, solving this equation is not a trivial task, as energy dissipation and mass conservation need to be verified for the numerical solution to be valid. This work addresses these issues, and proposes a novel algorithm that guarantees mass conservation, unconditional energy stability and second-order accuracy in time. Numerical results validating our proofs are presented, and two and three dimensional simulations involving crystal growth are shown, highlighting the robustness of the method. © 2015 Elsevier Ltd.