Imaging Atomic Rearrangements in Two-Dimensional Silica Glass: Watching Silica’s Dance

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Science  11 Oct 2013:
Vol. 342, Issue 6155, pp. 224-227
DOI: 10.1126/science.1242248

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Glassy Eyed

In crystalline materials, the collective motion of atoms in one- and two-dimensional defects—like dislocations and stacking faults—controls the response to an applied strain, but how glassy materials change their structure in response to strain is much less clear. Huang et al. (p. 224; see the Perspective by Heyde) used advanced-transmission electron microscopy to investigate the structural rearrangements in a two-dimensional glass, including the basis for shear deformations and the atomic behavior at the glass/liquid interface.


Structural rearrangements control a wide range of behavior in amorphous materials, and visualizing these atomic-scale rearrangements is critical for developing and refining models for how glasses bend, break, and melt. It is difficult, however, to directly image atomic motion in disordered solids. We demonstrate that using aberration-corrected transmission electron microscopy, we can excite and image atomic rearrangements in a two-dimensional silica glass—revealing a complex dance of elastic and plastic deformations, phase transitions, and their interplay. We identified the strain associated with individual ring rearrangements, observed the role of vacancies in shear deformation, and quantified fluctuations at a glass/liquid interface. These examples illustrate the wide-ranging and fundamental materials physics that can now be studied at atomic-resolution via transmission electron microscopy of two-dimensional glasses.

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