Insulator metal transition at the nanoscale

An international team of researchers has been able to probe the insulator-conductor phase transition of materials at the nanoscale resolution. This is one of the first results of MaReS endstation of BOREAS beamline.

Controlling the flow of electrons within circuits is how electronic devices work. This is achieved through the appropriate choice of materials. Metals allow electrons to flow freely and insulators prevent conduction. In general, the electrical properties of a material are determined when the material is fabricated and cannot be changed afterwards without changing the material. However, there are materials that can exhibit metal or insulator behaviour depending on their temperature. Being able switch their properties, these materials could lead to a new generation of electronic devices.

Vanadium Dioxide (VO2) is one such material. It can switch from an insulating phase to a metallic phase just above room temperature, a feature exploited already for sensors. However, the reason why the properties of this material change so dramatically has been a matter of scientific debate for over 50 years.

One of the challenges in understanding why and how this switch occurs is due to a process called phase separation. The insulator-metal phase transition is similar to the ice to liquid transition in water. When ice melts, both liquid and solid water can coexist in separate regions. Similarly, in VO2, insulating and metallic regions of the material can be coexisting at the same time during the transition. But unlike water, where the different regions are often large enough to see with the naked eye, in VOthis separation occurs on the nanoscale and it is thus challenging to observe. As a result, it has been hard to know if the true properties of each phase, or the mixture of both phases, are being measured.

>Read more on the ALBA Synchrotron website

Image: (extract, original here) reconstructed holograms at the vanadium and oxygen edges (518, 529, and 530.5 eV) used to encode the intensities of the three color channels of an RGB (red, green, blue) image. At 330 K, an increase in intensity of the green channel, which probes the metallic rutile phase (R) through the d∥ state, is observed in small regions. As the sample is heated further, it becomes increasingly clear that the blue channel, which probes a intermediate insulating M2 phase, also changes but in different regions. At 334 K, three distinct regions can be observed corresponding to the insulating monoclinic M1, M2, and metallic R phases. As the temperature increases, the R phase dominates. The circular field of view is 2 μm in diameter. (taken from Vidas et al, Nanoletters, 2018).