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Hard x-ray standing-wave photoemission insights into the structure of an epitaxial Fe/MgO multilayer magnetic tunnel junction

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The Fe/MgO magnetic tunnel junction is a classic spintronic system, with current importance technologically and interest for future innovation. The key magnetic properties are linked directly to the structure of hard-to-access buried interfaces, and the Fe and MgO components near the surface are unstable when exposed to air, making a deeper probing, nondestructive, in-situ measurement ideal for this system. We have thus applied hard X-ray photoemission spectroscopy (HXPS) and standing-wave (SW) HXPS in the few kilo-electron-volt energy range to probe the structure of an epitaxially grown MgO/Fe superlattice. The superlattice consists of 9 repeats of MgO grown on Fe by magnetron sputtering on an MgO(001) substrate, with a protective Al2O3 capping layer. We determine through SW-HXPS that 8 of the 9 repeats are similar and ordered, with a period of 33 ± 4 Å, with the minor presence of FeO at the interfaces and a significantly distorted top bilayer with ca. 3 times the oxidation of the lower layers at the top MgO/Fe interface. There is evidence of asymmetrical oxidation on the top and bottom of the Fe layers. We find agreement with dark-field scanning transmission electron microscope (STEM) and X-ray reflectivity measurements. Through the STEM measurements, we confirm an overall epitaxial stack with dislocations and warping at the interfaces of ca. 5 Å. We also note a distinct difference in the top bilayer, especially MgO, with possible Fe inclusions. We thus demonstrate that SW-HXPS can be used to probe deep buried interfaces of novel magnetic devices with few-angstrom precision.

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