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Giant anharmonic phonon scattering in PbTe


Understanding the microscopic processes affecting the bulk thermal conductivity is crucial to develop more efficient thermoelectric materials. PbTe is currently one of the leading thermoelectric materials, largely thanks to its low thermal conductivity. However, the origin of this low thermal conductivity in a simple rocksalt structure has so far been elusive. Using a combination of inelastic neutron scattering measurements and first-principles computations of the phonons, we identify a strong anharmonic coupling between the ferroelectric transverse optic mode and the longitudinal acoustic modes in PbTe. This interaction extends over a large portion of reciprocal space, and directly affects the heat-carrying longitudinal acoustic phonons. The longitudinal acoustic–transverse optic anharmonic coupling is likely to play a central role in explaining the low thermal conductivity of PbTe. The present results provide a microscopic picture of why many good thermoelectric materials are found near a lattice instability of the ferroelectric type.

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Figure 1: Anomalous features of phonon dispersions observed with INS.
Figure 2: Constant- E intensity cuts along [00L] in the (113) zone, showing the avoided-crossing behaviour of the LA and TO branches.
Figure 3: LA-mode phonon dispersion (ELA) and linewidth (ΓLA, corrected for instrument resolution), showing an anomaly at the phonon wave vector q~0.2 along [00L] .
Figure 4: Profile of the TO mode in energy at the zone centre, measured with HB3 and CNCS, showing the broad double-peak structure and its change with temperature.


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We thank M. E. Hagen, J. L. Robertson and S. E. Nagler for discussions. The neutron scattering and theory work was supported by the US Department of Energy (DOE), Office of Basic Energy Sciences, as part of the S3TEC Energy Frontier Research Center, DOE DE-SC0001299. The Research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Spallation Neutron Source and High Flux Isotope Reactor was sponsored by the Scientific User Facilities Division, Office of Basic Energy Sciences, US DOE. B.C.S., A.F.M. and M.A.M. acknowledge support from the US DOE, Basic Energy Sciences, Materials Sciences and Engineering Division.

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O.D., J.M., K.M., A.P., G.E. and M.D.L. made the neutron scattering measurements. O.D. and J.M. analysed the neutron scattering data. A.F.M., M.A.M. and B.C.S. synthesized and characterized the samples. M-H.D. and D.J.S. carried out the DFT calculations. O.D. carried out the neutron scattering intensity and mode coupling calculations. O.D wrote the manuscript and all authors commented on and edited the manuscript.

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Correspondence to O. Delaire.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Delaire, O., Ma, J., Marty, K. et al. Giant anharmonic phonon scattering in PbTe. Nature Mater 10, 614–619 (2011).

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