Atomic and Electronic Structure of the Al2O3/Al Interface during Oxide Propagation Probed by Ab Initio Grand Canonical Monte Carlo

V Somjit and B Yildiz, ACS APPLIED MATERIALS & INTERFACES, 14, 42613-42627 (2022).

DOI: 10.1021/acsami.2c08706

Identifying the structure of the Al2O3/Al interface is important for advancing its performance in a wide range of applications, including microelectronics, corrosion barriers, and superconducting qubits. However, beyond the study of a few select terminations of the interface using computational methods, and top-down, laterally averaged spectroscopic and microscopic analyses, the explicit structure of the interface and the initial stages of propagation of the interface into the metal are largely unresolved. In this study, we utilize ab initio grand canonical Monte Carlo to perform a physically motivated, unbiased exploration of the interfacial composition and configuration space. We find that at equilibrium, the interface is atomically sharp with aluminum vacancies and propagates in a layer-by-layer fashion, with aluminum excess in the oxide layer at the interfacial plane. Oxygen incorporation, aluminum vacancy formation, and aluminum vacancy annihilation are the building blocks of Al2O3 formation at the interface. The localized interfacial mid-gap states from under- coordinated aluminum atoms from the oxide and the immediate depletion of aluminum states near the Fermi level upon oxygen incorporation prevent oxygen dissolution ahead of the interface front and result in the layer- by-layer propagation of the interface. This is in sharp contrast to the ZrO2/Zr system, which forms interfacial sub-oxides, and also explains the favorable self-healing nature of the Al2O3/Al system. The occupied interfacial mid-gap states also increase the calculated n-type Schottky barrier heights. Additionally, we identify that interfacial aluminum core-level shifts linearly depend on the aluminum coordination number, whereas interfacial oxygen core-level shifts depend on long-range ordering at the interface. The detailed geometric and electronic insights into the interface structure and evolution expand our understanding of this fundamental interface and have important implications for the engineering and design of Al2O3/Al-based corrosion coatings with enhanced barrier properties, controllable transistor technologies, and noise-free superconducting qubits.

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