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Atom probe tomography (APT) is often introduced as providing “atomic-scale” mapping of the composition of materials and as such is often exploited to analyze atomic neighborhoods within a material. Yet quantifying the actual spatial performance of the technique in a general case remains challenging, as it depends on the material system being investigated as well as on the specimen's geometry. Here, by using comparisons with field-ion microscopy experiments, field-ion imaging and field evaporation simulations, we provide the basis for a critical reflection on the spatial performance of APT in the analysis of pure metals, low alloyed systems and concentrated solid solutions (i.e., akin to high-entropy alloys). The spatial resolution imposes strong limitations on the possible interpretation of measured atomic neighborhoods, and directional neighborhood analyses restricted to the depth are expected to be more robust. We hope this work gets the community to reflect on its practices, in the same way, it got us to reflect on our work.
Three-dimensional field ion microscopy is a powerful technique to analyze material at a truly atomic scale. Most previous studies have been made on pure, crystalline materials such as tungsten or iron. In this article, we study more complex materials, and we present the first images of an amorphous sample, showing the capability to visualize the compositional fluctuations compatible with theoretical medium order in a metallic glass (FeBSi), which is extremely challenging to observe directly using other microscopy techniques. The intensity of the spots of the atoms at the moment of field evaporation in a field ion micrograph can be used as a proxy for identifying the elemental identity of the imaged atoms. By exploiting the elemental identification and positioning information from field ion images, we show the capability of this technique to provide imaging of recrystallized phases in the annealed sample with a superior spatial resolution compared with atom probe tomography.
Atom probe tomography (APT) helps elucidate the link between the nanoscale chemical variations and physical properties, but it has a limited structural resolution. Field ion microscopy (FIM), a predecessor technique to APT, is capable of attaining atomic resolution along certain sets of crystallographic planes albeit at the expense of elemental identification. We demonstrate how two commercially available atom probe instruments, one with a straight flight path and one fitted with a reflectron lens, can be used to acquire time-of-flight mass spectrometry data concomitant with a FIM experiment. We outline various experimental protocols making the use of temporal and spatial correlations to best discriminate field-evaporated signals from the large field-ionized background signal, demonstrating an unsophisticated yet efficient data mining strategy to provide this discrimination. We discuss the remaining experimental challenges that need to be addressed, notably concerned with accurate detection and identification of individual field-evaporated ions contained within the high field-ionized flux that contributes to a FIM image. Our hybrid experimental approach can, in principle, exhibit true atomic resolution with elemental discrimination capabilities, neither of which atom probe nor FIM can individually fully deliver—thereby making this new approach, here broadly termed analytical field ion microscopy (aFIM), unique.
Atom probe tomography (APT) is particularly suited for the analysis of nanoscale microstructural features in metallic alloys. APT has become important in the quantitative assessment at high spatial resolution of light elements, which are notoriously difficult to analyze by electron- or X-ray-based techniques. These control the physical properties of high-strength materials and semiconductors. However, the mass spectrometer of state-of-the-art commercial atom probes with the highest spatial precision and detection efficiency are optimized for elements with mass-to-charge ratios corresponding to Fe and neighboring elements. Little is known on the theoretical performances for light elements. Here, we discuss the theoretical instrumental performance of one such instrument using accurate three-dimensional transient electrostatic simulations in a time-varying field approach. We compare the simulations to experimental measurements obtained on an FeBSi bulk-metallic glass. Dynamics effects during the ion's flight are revealed when examining multi-hit mass-to-charge correlations, and we demonstrate their influence on the mass resolution. The model reveals significant differences in ion projection as a function of the mass. We discuss how these chromatic aberrations affect the spatial precision. This approach shows that by tuning the shape of the voltage pulses used to trigger field evaporation, minimizing the influence of these detrimental dynamic effects is possible.
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