Interest in semiconductor grain boundaries relates to the development of polycrystalline materials for photovoltaics and integrated-circuit interconnects. Although these structures are responsible for deleterious electrical effects, there are few experimental techniques available to study them at the required atomic scale. Therefore models of the physical processes occurring at grain boundaries have necessarily taken a macroscopic approach. Fortunately recent developments have resulted in tools that provide unprecedented glimpses into these interfaces and that will allow us to address anew the connection between grain-boundary structure and properties.
When exploring the unknown, we rely heavily on our eyes (incoherent imaging) to provide a direct image of a new object. In order to explore the unforeseen atomic configurations present at extended defects in materials, it again would be desirable if one could obtain a directly interpretable image of the unfamiliar structures present in the defect cores. Z-contrast electron microscopy provides such a view with both atomic resolution and compositional sensitivity.
This high-resolution imaging technique differs from conventional high-resolution phase-contrast imaging. The phase-contrast technique produces a coherent image, an interference pattern formed by recombining the waves diffracted by the specimen. In the Z-contrast technique, the image is incoherent; it is essentially a map of the scattering power of the specimen. Additionally as was first determined by Lord Rayleigh, the incoherent mode of image formation has double the resolving power of the coherent mode.