Direct imaging of the spatial and energy distribution of nucleation centres in ferroelectric materials


Macroscopic ferroelectric polarization switching, similar to other first-order phase transitions, is controlled by nucleation centres. Despite 50 years of extensive theoretical and experimental effort, the microstructural origins of the Landauer paradox, that is, the experimentally observed low values of coercive fields in ferroelectrics corresponding to implausibly large nucleation activation energies, are still a mystery. Here, we develop an approach to visualize the nucleation centres controlling polarization switching processes with nanometre resolution, determine their spatial and energy distribution and correlate them to local microstructure. The random-bond and random-field components of the disorder potential are extracted from positive and negative nucleation biases. Observation of enhanced nucleation activity at the 90 domain wall boundaries and intersections combined with phase-field modelling identifies them as a class of nucleation centres that control switching in structural-defect-free materials.

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Figure 1: Imaging local nucleation biases in ferroelectric thin films.
Figure 2: The role of defects on the energetics of polarization switching.
Figure 3: Reconstruction of random-field and random-bond disorder components.
Figure 4: Phase-field modelling of the domain structure and polarization and field distributions in the vicinity of the ferroelastic domain.
Figure 5: Phase-field modelling of the effect of domain boundaries on nucleation bias.


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Research sponsored by the Division of Materials Sciences and Engineering, Office of Basic Energy Sciences, US Department of Energy (S.J., A.P.B. and S.V.K.) and the ORNL LDRD program (B.J.R.). J.X.Z., S.C. and L.-Q.C. at Penn State acknowledge the financial support of the NSF under DMR-0507146 and DOE under DE-FG02-07ER46417. Multiple discussions with A. Tagantsev and J. Scott are gratefully acknowledged.

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Correspondence to Sergei V. Kalinin.

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Jesse, S., Rodriguez, B., Choudhury, S. et al. Direct imaging of the spatial and energy distribution of nucleation centres in ferroelectric materials. Nature Mater 7, 209–215 (2008).

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