Since the discovery of superconductivity in layered cuprates there has been a strong desire to grow thin films of these materials in a so-called layer-by-layer manner, where each layer represents one atomic monolayer. There has been worldwide interest in this problem and numerous groups have invested time and equipment in an attempt, first, to grow the known materials using a sequential deposition technique so that the atomic monolayers are stacked artificially on top of one another in a sequence defined by the structure of the given unit cell, and second, to search for new stacking sequences of such atomic monolayers, thus making metastable compounds.
Understanding the growth of thin films using any deposition technique requires information about two fundamental processes, the nucleation of a crystal and its growth. Both are strongly affected by the three thermodynamic parameters, temperature, pressure, and chemical potential (composition), at the growth front. The third parameter, the surface composition from which the desired compound can nucleate and propagate, probably provides the greatest degree of freedom in the growth process. The compositional phase diagrams of most cuprates show that several phases can coexist with the superconducting phase at a certain temperature and pressure. This is also the main reason why a widely changing surface composition, such as that present during layer-by-layer or block-by-block deposition, still produces high-quality thin films.