Direct Visualization of the Earliest Stages of Crystallization

Microsc Microanal. 2021 Aug;27(4):659-665. doi: 10.1017/S1431927621000441.


Investigating the earliest stages of crystallization requires the transmission electron microscope (TEM) and is particularly challenging for materials which can be affected by the electron beam. Typically, when imaging at magnifications high enough to observe local crystallinity, the electron beam's current density must be high to produce adequate image contrast. Yet, minimizing the electron dose is necessary to reduce the changes caused by the beam. With the advent of a sensitive, high-speed, direct-detection camera for a TEM that is corrected for spherical aberration, it is possible to probe the early stages of crystallization at the atomic scale. High-quality images with low contrast can now be analyzed using new computing methods. In the present paper, this approach is illustrated for crystallization in a Ge2Sb2Te5 (GST-225) phase-change material which can undergo particularly rapid phase transformations and is sensitive to the electron beam. A thin (20 nm) film of GST-225 has been directly imaged in the TEM and the low-dose images processed using Python scripting to extract details of the nanoscale nuclei. Quantitative analysis of the processed images in a video sequence also allows the growth of such nuclei to be followed.

Keywords: Ge2Sb2Te5; Python scripting; beam-sensitive; crystallization; low-dose.