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Engineering crystal structures with light


The crystal structure of a solid largely dictates its electronic, optical and mechanical properties. Indeed, much of the exploration of quantum materials in recent years including the discovery of new phases and phenomena in correlated, topological and two-dimensional materials—has been based on the ability to rationally control crystal structures through materials synthesis, strain engineering or heterostructuring of van der Waals bonded materials. These static approaches, while enormously powerful, are limited by thermodynamic and elastic constraints. An emerging avenue of study has focused on extending such structural control to the dynamical regime by using resonant laser pulses to drive vibrational modes in a crystal. This paradigm of ‘nonlinear phononics’ provides a basis for rationally designing the structure and symmetry of crystals with light, allowing for the manipulation of functional properties at high speed and, in many instances, beyond what may be possible in equilibrium. Here we provide an overview of the developments in this field, discussing the theory, applications and future prospects of optical crystal structure engineering.

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Fig. 1: Depiction of the current frontiers in manipulating quantum materials via structural control.
Fig. 2: Distorting crystal structure via nonlinear phononics.
Fig. 3: Structural distortions and physical property control via nonlinear phononics and THz optical excitation.


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We thank M. Fechner, M. Först, R. Merlin and P. Radaelli for numerous valuable discussions. A.S.D. acknowledges fellowship support from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. T.F.N. was supported by the ETH Zürich Postdoctoral Fellowship programme.

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Correspondence to Ankit S. Disa or Andrea Cavalleri.

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Peer review information Nature Physics thanks Lara Benfatto and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Disa, A.S., Nova, T.F. & Cavalleri, A. Engineering crystal structures with light. Nat. Phys. 17, 1087–1092 (2021).

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