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, 2 (8), e1501382

Approaching the Ideal Elastic Strain Limit in Silicon Nanowires


Approaching the Ideal Elastic Strain Limit in Silicon Nanowires

Hongti Zhang et al. Sci Adv.


Achieving high elasticity for silicon (Si) nanowires, one of the most important and versatile building blocks in nanoelectronics, would enable their application in flexible electronics and bio-nano interfaces. We show that vapor-liquid-solid-grown single-crystalline Si nanowires with diameters of ~100 nm can be repeatedly stretched above 10% elastic strain at room temperature, approaching the theoretical elastic limit of silicon (17 to 20%). A few samples even reached ~16% tensile strain, with estimated fracture stress up to ~20 GPa. The deformations were fully reversible and hysteresis-free under loading-unloading tests with varied strain rates, and the failures still occurred in brittle fracture, with no visible sign of plasticity. The ability to achieve this "deep ultra-strength" for Si nanowires can be attributed mainly to their pristine, defect-scarce, nanosized single-crystalline structure and atomically smooth surfaces. This result indicates that semiconductor nanowires could have ultra-large elasticity with tunable band structures for promising "elastic strain engineering" applications.

Keywords: Silicon nanowire; deep ultra-strength; elastic strain engineering; elasticity; ideal strength; nanomechanics; room temperature; tensile strain.


Fig. 1
Fig. 1. Sample and experimental configuration.
(A) VLS-grown Si nanowire sample with a uniform diameter of ~100 nm. Inset: Selected area electron diffraction (SAED) pattern indicates that Si nanowire is a single-crystal cubic diamond structure grown along the <110> orientation, which has been confirmed by the corresponding high-resolution transmission electron microscopy (HRTEM) image. (B) Lattice spacing of ~0.19 nm with respect to the <110> plane of Si. (C) HRTEM side view of a Si nanowire showing the atomically smooth surface. (D) In situ scanning electron microscopy (SEM) tensile testing of a single nanowire based on a push-to-pull MMD actuated by an external quantitative nanoindenter. (E to G) Zoom-in views (G) of the yellow frame in (D) are presented in (E) and (F), showing the detailed clamping configuration of a single nanowire sample at a lower voltage of 2 kV (E) and a regular working voltage of 20 kV (F). The tensile gauge length is indicated by the red bar in (E), whereas the yellow arrows in (F) indicate the uniaxial tensile loading direction. (H) Typical load-versus-displacement curve read from the nanoindenter for a monotonic tensile test under the displacement control mode. The abrupt force drop indicates the failure of the nanowire sample.
Fig. 2
Fig. 2. In situ SEM tensile tests and postmortem TEM analysis.
(A to F) Elongation of a single Si nanowire (diameter, ~86 nm). (A) Original status before test. (B to E) Extracted frames show gradual elongation of Si nanowire under tensile straining, with a maximum strain of 13% just before fracture (E). (F) Most of the nanowires flew away right after fracture, except the clamped portion. (G) The corresponding stress-versus-strain curve is nearly linear, with a fracture stress of ~16 GPa. (H and I) Loading-unloading test with increasing tensile strain amplitude and full unloading in each cycle. (H) Si nanowire before test (diameter, ~120 nm). (I) Loading–fully unloading process, in which the nanowire fully recovers its original length after strain values of ~5.8, ~8.1, ~9.7, and 13.2% are experienced. The nanowire finally broke at the fifth cycle with a strain value of ~13.5%, with one piece of broken nanowire remaining on the stage (as marked in the white frame); note that there is a thin, nonuniform layer of glue coating the nanowire [the red dashed lines in (H) indicate the true nanowire boundary]. (J and K) Bright-field TEM images showing a typical brittle fracture surface morphology, in which the nanowire remained in the single-crystalline structure [inset SAED pattern in (K)] with a uniform diameter [highlighted by red dashed lines in (J), with a small amount of conductive epoxy glue over the surface] and a flat fracture surface. All the images in (J) and (K) were taken in <1-11> zone axis. (L) The HRTEM image of the front end of the nanowire fracture surface [the red rectangular area in (K)] shows the single-crystalline structure with flat fracture surface (highlighted by red dashed lines); during the sample transfer and posttesting TEM analysis, a thin layer (~5 to 6 nm) of amorphous silicon oxide was formed at the fracture surface (L) with no visible sign of plastic deformation.
Fig. 3
Fig. 3. Tensile test in ambient environment under an optical microscope.
(A) Loading-unloading tensile test of a Si nanowire with increasing tensile strain amplitude and full unloading in each cycle. Again, the nanowire recovered its original length after strain values of ~5, ~7.3, and ~10% were experienced in each cycle and eventually fractured at the fourth cycle with strain value of ~11.7% (top to bottom: the last three cycles), where most of the broken nanowire flew away, as shown in the last frame. Note that the contrast in the optical images was slightly enhanced for clarity. (B) Corresponding stress-versus-strain curves of the multicycle loading–fully unloading test, using different colors to better illustrate the data from each cycle.
Fig. 4
Fig. 4. Comparison between VLS-grown Si nanowires and top-down etched Si nanowires.
(A) Bright-field TEM showing a top-down etched single-crystal Si nanowire (also in <110> orientation) with a uniform diameter but a relatively rough surface. (B) Deformation process of a top-down etched Si nanowire upon tensile straining (diameter, ~140 nm) with the corresponding stress-versus-strain curve. (C) Si nanowire broken in an elastic manner with a fracture strain of ~3.7% (fracture stress, ~5 GPa; calculated Young’s modulus, ~135 GPa). (D) Summary of the comparison for the fracture strain versus nanowire (NW) diameter between the VLS-grown (red dots) and top-down etched (blue triangles) Si nanowires. The shaded bottom area indicates the range of previously reported tensile strain values for Si nanowires with diameters of >20 nm (–27). (E) Summary of the fracture strains of VLS-grown Si nanowires versus their strain/loading rates, indicating that the elastic limit is insensitive to strain rate in this range.

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