Deciphering chemical order/disorder and material properties at the single-atom level

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Abstract

Perfect crystals are rare in nature. Real materials often contain crystal defects and chemical order/disorder such as grain boundaries, dislocations, interfaces, surface reconstructions and point defects1,2,3. Such disruption in periodicity strongly affects material properties and functionality1,2,3. Despite rapid development of quantitative material characterization methods1,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18, correlating three-dimensional (3D) atomic arrangements of chemical order/disorder and crystal defects with material properties remains a challenge. On a parallel front, quantum mechanics calculations such as density functional theory (DFT) have progressed from the modelling of ideal bulk systems to modelling ‘real’ materials with dopants, dislocations, grain boundaries and interfaces19,20; but these calculations rely heavily on average atomic models extracted from crystallography. To improve the predictive power of first-principles calculations, there is a pressing need to use atomic coordinates of real systems beyond average crystallographic measurements. Here we determine the 3D coordinates of 6,569 iron and 16,627 platinum atoms in an iron-platinum nanoparticle, and correlate chemical order/disorder and crystal defects with material properties at the single-atom level. We identify rich structural variety with unprecedented 3D detail including atomic composition, grain boundaries, anti-phase boundaries, anti-site point defects and swap defects. We show that the experimentally measured coordinates and chemical species with 22 picometre precision can be used as direct input for DFT calculations of material properties such as atomic spin and orbital magnetic moments and local magnetocrystalline anisotropy. This work combines 3D atomic structure determination of crystal defects with DFT calculations, which is expected to advance our understanding of structure-property relationships at the fundamental level.

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