The discrete nature of crystal lattices plays a role in virtually every material property. But it is only when the size of entities hosted by a crystal becomes comparable to the lattice period—as occurs for dislocations1,2,3, vortices in superconductors4,5,6 and domain walls7,8,9—that this discreteness is manifest explicitly. The associated phenomena are usually described in terms of a background Peierls ‘atomic washboard’ energy potential, which was first introduced for the case of dislocation motion1,2 in the 1940s. This concept has subsequently been invoked in many situations to describe certain features in the bulk behaviour of materials, but has to date eluded direct detection and experimental scrutiny at a microscopic level. Here we report observations of the motion of a single magnetic domain wall at the scale of the individual peaks and troughs of the atomic energy landscape. Our experiments reveal that domain walls can become trapped between crystalline planes, and that they propagate by distinct jumps that match the lattice periodicity. The jumps between valleys are found to involve unusual dynamics that shed light on the microscopic processes underlying domain-wall propagation. Such observations offer a means for probing experimentally the physics of topological defects in discrete lattices—a field rich in phenomena that have been subject to extensive theoretical study10,11,12.
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This research was supported by the EPSRC (UK). We thank S. Gillott and M. Sellers for technical assistance and J. Steeds for advice on dislocation motion. S.V.D. also acknowledges support from Russian Ministry of Science and Technology.
The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.
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Novoselov, K., Geim, A., Dubonos, S. et al. Subatomic movements of a domain wall in the Peierls potential. Nature 426, 812–816 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature02180
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