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A new way to shape a material’s atomic structure with ultrafast laser light

David Reis, Professor of Applied Physics, and Yijing Huang, graduate student in Applied Physics, conduct X-ray laser experiments that show that intense light distorts the structure of a thermoelectric material in a unique way, opening a new avenue for controlling the properties of materials.


Thermoelectric materials convert heat to electricity and vice versa, and their atomic structures are closely related to how well they perform. Now researchers have discovered how to change the atomic structure of a highly efficient thermoelectric material, tin selenide, with intense pulses of laser light. This result opens a new way to improve thermoelectrics and a host of other materials by controlling their structure, creating materials with dramatic new properties that may not exist in nature. “For this class of materials that’s extremely important, because their functional properties are associated with their structure,” said Yijing Huang, a Stanford University graduate student who played an important role in the experiments at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. “By changing the nature of the light you put in, you can tailor the nature of the material you create.”

The experiments took place at SLAC’s X-ray free-electron laser, the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS). The results were reported today in Physical Review X and will be highlighted in a special collection devoted to ultrafast science.

(Image credit SLAC)