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Nano Lett. 2012 Jun 13;12(6):3168-73. doi: 10.1021/nl301141g. Epub 2012 May 10.

Atom-by-atom observation of grain boundary migration in graphene.

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Central Facility for Electron Microscopy, Group of Electron Microscopy of Materials Science, Ulm University, 89081 Ulm, Germany.


Grain boundary (GB) migration in polycrystalline solids is a materials science manifestation of survival of the fittest, with adjacent grains competing to add atoms to their outer surfaces at each other's expense. This process is thermodynamically favored when it lowers the total GB area in the sample, thereby reducing the excess free energy contributed by the boundaries. In this picture, a curved boundary is expected to migrate toward its center of curvature with a velocity proportional to the local radius of boundary curvature (R). Investigating the underlying mechanism of boundary migration in a 3D material, however, has been reserved for computer simulation or analytical theory, as capturing the dynamics of individual atoms in the core region of a GB is well beyond the spatial and temporal resolution limits of current characterization techniques. Here, we similarly overcome the conventional experimental limits by investigating a 2D material, polycrystalline graphene, in an aberration-corrected transmission electron microscope, exploiting the energy of the imaging electrons to stimulate individual bond rotations in the GB core region. The resulting morphological changes are followed in situ, atom-by-atom, revealing configurational fluctuations that take on a time-averaged preferential direction only in the presence of significant boundary curvature, as confirmed by Monte Carlo simulations. Remarkably, in the extreme case of a small graphene grain enclosed within a larger one, we follow its shrinkage to the point of complete disappearance.

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