Research Article

Femtosecond x-ray diffraction reveals a liquid–liquid phase transition in phase-change materials

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Science  14 Jun 2019:
Vol. 364, Issue 6445, pp. 1062-1067
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaw1773

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Structural switch for fast switching

Phase-change materials are important for computer memory. They can quickly switch from glassy to crystalline using a thermal pulse and then lock in that structure for a long time at lower temperature. Zalden et al. probed the underlying atomic structure of two phase-change materials during this switching using ultrafast x-rays and simulations (see the Perspective by Rao et al.). A liquid-liquid phase transition in both materials allowed fast switching at high temperatures. The lower-temperature glass locks in the structure, allowing for long-term memory storage.

Science, this issue p. 1062; see also p. 1032


In phase-change memory devices, a material is cycled between glassy and crystalline states. The highly temperature-dependent kinetics of its crystallization process enables application in memory technology, but the transition has not been resolved on an atomic scale. Using femtosecond x-ray diffraction and ab initio computer simulations, we determined the time-dependent pair-correlation function of phase-change materials throughout the melt-quenching and crystallization process. We found a liquid–liquid phase transition in the phase-change materials Ag4In3Sb67Te26 and Ge15Sb85 at 660 and 610 kelvin, respectively. The transition is predominantly caused by the onset of Peierls distortions, the amplitude of which correlates with an increase of the apparent activation energy of diffusivity. This reveals a relationship between atomic structure and kinetics, enabling a systematic optimization of the memory-switching kinetics.

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