Knowing how crystals nucleate at the atomic scale is crucial for understanding, and in turn controlling, the structure and properties of a wide variety of materials. However, because of the scale and highly dynamic nature of nuclei, the formation and early growth of nuclei are very difficult to observe. Here, we have employed single-walled carbon nanotubes as test tubes, and an ‘atomic injector’ coupled with aberration-corrected transmission electron microscopy, to enable in situ imaging of the initial steps of nucleation at the atomic scale. With three different metals we observed three main processes prior to heterogeneous nucleation: formation of crystal nuclei directly from an atomic seed (Fe), from a pre-existing amorphous nanocluster (Au) or by coalescence of two separate amorphous sub-nanometre clusters (Re). We demonstrate the roles of the amorphous precursors and the existence of an energy barrier before nuclei formation. In all three cases, crystal nucleus formation occurred through a two-step nucleation mechanism.
Cao, K., Biskupek, J., Stoppiello, C. T., McSweeney, R. L., Chamberlain, T. W., Liu, Z., …Kaiser, U. (2020). Atomic mechanism of metal crystal nucleus formation in a single-walled carbon nanotube. Nature Chemistry, 12, 921–928. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41557-020-0538-9