Polar materials, such as piezoelectrics and ferroelectrics are essential to our modern life, yet they are mostly developed by trial-and-error. Their properties overwhelmingly depend on the defects within them, the majority of which are hidden in the bulk. The road to better materials is via mapping these defects, but our best tool for it – piezoresponse force microscopy (PFM) – is limited to surfaces. 3D-PXM aims to revolutionize our understanding by measuring the local structure-property correlations around individual defects buried deep in the bulk.
This is a completely new kind of microscopy enabling 3D maps of local strain and polarization (i.e. piezoresponse) with 10 nm resolution in mm-sized samples. It is novel, multi-scale and fast enough to capture defect dynamics in real time. Uniquely, it is a full-field method that uses a synthetic-aperture approach to improve both resolution and recover the image phase. This phase is then quantitatively correlated to local polarization and strain via a forward model. 3D-PXM combines advances in X-Ray optics, phase recovery and data analysis to create something transformative. In principle, it can achieve spatial resolution comparable to the best coherent X-Ray microscopy methods while being faster, used on larger samples, and without risk of radiation damage.
For the first time, this opens the door to solving how defects influence bulk properties under real-life conditions. 3D-PXM focuses on three types of defects prevalent in polar materials: grain boundaries, dislocations and polar nanoregions. Individually they address major gaps in the state-of-the-art, while together making great strides towards fully understanding defects. This understanding is expected to inform a new generation of multi-scale models that can account for a material’s full heterogeneity. These models are the first step towards abandoning our tradition of trial-and-error, and with this comes the potential for a new era of polar materials.
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