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Observation of high-pressure polymorphs in bulk silicon formed at relativistic laser intensities...

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Physical Review Research
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Silicon polymorphs with exotic electronic and optical properties have recently attracted significant attention due to their wide range of useful band gap characteristics. They are typically formed by static high-pressure techniques, which limits the crystal structures that can be made. This constitutes a major obstacle to study these polymorphs and their incorporation into existing technology. Approaches have attempted to address this shortcoming through using dynamic conditions and chemical precursor materials. Here, we report on an approach to create unusual crystal structures deep in the bulk of a silicon crystal by irradiating it with a laser pulse at ultrarelativistic intensity of up to 7.5×1019 W/cm2. Laser-generated electrons with MeV energy swiftly penetrate the target with speed close to the speed of light and deposit their energy into a large volume across the whole thickness of the sample. The relativistic electron current creates, via branching propagation and ionization, high-energy-density conditions for thermodynamically nonequilibrium phase transformation paths into new crystal polymorphs. X-ray microdiffraction and synchrotron x-ray diffraction analyses indicate, along with conventional dc-Si, the presence of exotic silicon structures in the bulk of the laser intact target volume. These structures are identified as body-centered bc8-Si, rhombohedral r8-Si, hexagonal-diamond hd-Si, and the tetragonal Si-VIII, all phases of Si that have previously been made through static techniques. Additionally, simple-tetragonal st12-Si and body-centered tetragonal bt8-Si were observed along with signatures of not yet identified diffraction spots. Both st12-Si and bt8-Si have only been observed in ultrafast laser microexplosion conditions at much lower laser intensity ∼1014 W/cm2 and within a micron-thin surface layer. The findings here are supported by direct observation of nanoparticles with high-resolution transmission electron microscopy and corresponding fast Fourier transform analysis of their interatomic distances. The presented analyses of absorbed laser energy, generation of the MeV electron current, and deposition of energy across the whole target thickness provide a solid basis for drawing the conclusion that the observed silicon polymorphs were produced because of laser-generated high-energy electrons fast-penetrating deeply into the bulk of silicon. In contrast to solid-solid transformations, the plasma-solid transitions offer a paradigm for the creation of exotic, high-energy density materials inside the bulk of the sample by using laser pulses at relativistic intensities.