|Femtosecond NEXAFS of Photoinduced Insulator-Metal Transition in VO2|
The grand goal motivating femtosecond studies of condensed-matter dynamics is to directly measure the structural pathways that connect different crystallographic, electronic, and magnetic phases of solids, as well as the short-lived transition states between reactants and products in chemical and biochemical reactions. Researchers from Berkeley Lab and the Université du Québec have taken a big step forward by adding femtosecond x-ray spectroscopy to the experimental toolkit with their first use of the laser-slicing technique to study the photoinduced metal–insulator phase transition in vanadium dioxide (VO2).
In a series of experiments, the group has been investigating the VO2 transition in which an insulator with a monoclinic crystal lattice becomes a metal with a rutile structure when heated above 340 K. The controversial nature of the low-T, insulating phase, as well as substantial uncertainty over the roles of structural motion and electronic correlations in driving this phase transition, have fueled an enduring debate over several decades.
Rather than varying the temperature, the group studied the nonequilibrium pathway of the phase transition after impulsively exciting the material with light. Such “photodoping” can, in analogy with chemical substitution, favor relaxation of the system into a competing state (in this case a metal). The relevant electronic states for the phase transition derive from vanadium 3d states split in energy by crystal-field effects, period doubling in the crystal unit cell (dimerization) in the low-T insulator, and electron–electron correlations.
In their experiments, prompt photodoping by exciting electrons out of (and hence holes into) the valence band (formed from 3d|| states) of the low-T insulator and delocalization of the charge carriers in the spatially extended conduction band cause an ultrafast transition to the metallic state as the valence and conductions bands once separated by an energy gap now overlap. During this process, the structural dimerization of the low-T insulator coherently relaxes. Both processes occur on the 100-fs time scale.
To date, the lack of femtosecond x-ray sources that are tunable over a broad spectral range has hindered development of femtosecond x-ray spectroscopy. The technique of laser slicing now coming into use at the ALS is currently the only proven method to generate broadband x-ray pulses of femtosecond duration. With soft x-ray near-edge x-ray absorption spectroscopy (NEXAFS), the electronic states near the Fermi level that participate in the insulator-to-metal phase transition can be distinguished by measuring absorption from symmetry-selective core levels.
In their optical-pump/x-ray-probe experiments at bend-magnet Beamline 5.3.1, they used a flat-field imaging spectrometer to spectrally disperse the soft x rays transmitted through the sample, thereby capturing the entire absorption spectrum at once for each time delay between the laser excitation and the measurement. Earlier picosecond NEXAFS measurements in VO2 uncovered a red shift of the L3 edge to lower energy, corresponding to a collapse of the unoccupied states of 3d symmetry, and followed the quasi-equilibrium kinetics of the transition as metallic layer grew into the material.
Femtosecond NEXAFS measurements made at the vanadium 2p3/2 edge revealed a prompt increase in absorption immediately after photoexcitation, recovering within a few picoseconds. At the oxygen 1s resonance, the absorption coefficient also initially increased synchronously with that at the vanadium 2p3/2 resonance but then decreased (bleached) before relaxing on the same few-picosecond time scale as the signal at the vanadium edge.
The observed behavior likely results from a combination of hole and electron photodoping, band-structure rearrangement, and dynamic shift of the core levels. Full, high-resolution x-ray absorption spectra at the higher-flux undulator Beamline 6.0.1 now under construction will make it possible to clarify the nature of this complicated interplay. For the moment, these data represent the first successful measurement of x-ray absorption on the fundamental time scale where the phase transition occurs.
Research conducted by A. Cavalleri, M. Rini, H.H.W. Chong, and R.W. Schoenlein (Berkeley Lab); S. Fournaux (Université du Québec, Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique, Canada); and T.E. Glover and P.A. Heimann (ALS).
Research funding: U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Basic Energy Sciences (BES); Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Canada; and Canada Research Chair Program. Operation of the ALS is supported by BES.
Publications about this research: A. Cavalleri, M. Rini, H.H.W. Chong, S. Fourmaux, T.E. Glover, P.A. Heimann, J.C. Kieffer, and R.W. Schoenlein, “Band-selective measurement of electronic dynamics in VO2 using femtosecond near edge x-ray absorption,” Phys. Rev. Lett. 95, 067405 (2005); A. Cavalleri, H.H.W. Chong, S. Fourmaux, T.E. Glover, P.A. Heimann, J.C. Kieffer, B.S. Mun, H.A. Padmore, and R.W. Schoenlein, “Picosecond soft x-ray absorption measurement of the photoinduced insulator-to-metal transition in VO2,” Phys. Rev. B 69, 153106 (2004).