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In-situ microscopy of the first-order magnetic phase transition in FeRh thin films


Simple ferromagnetic (FM) and antiferromagnetic (AF) materials such as Fe and Cr become paramagnetic when heated above some critical temperature, in what is known as a second-order phase transition. Less usual magnetic transitions are found in the magnetic world, for example a first-order magnetic phase transition from AF to FM with increasing temperature. Equiatomic FeRh has been known to exhibit such a transition for over 50 years, with a transition temperature slightly above room temperature. Interest in this material has been renewed in the recent years due to its potential application for heat-assisted magnetic recording, as well as a test system for fundamental studies of the physics of magnetic phase transitions. Similarly to crystallization, this AF-FM transition is expected to proceed by nucleation of magnetic domains but the features of the first-order hysteretic transition have been difficult to study with macroscopic measurements and very few microscopic studies have been performed.

In this work, FeRh thin films were synthesized by magnetron sputtering and structurally and magnetically characterized. A membrane-based heating device was designed to enable temperature-dependent microscopy measurements, providing a thermally uniform and well-controlled sample area. Synchrotron x-ray magnetic microscopy was used to study the temperature-driven AF-FM phase transition in epitaxial FeRh thin films in zero field. Using magnetic microscopy with x-ray magnetic circular dichroism, the different stages of nucleation, growth and coalescence of FM domains were observed across the transition and details of the nucleation were identified. The FM phase nucleates into single domain

islands and the width of the transition of the individual nuclei upon heating is sharper than that of the macroscopic transition. Using magnetic microscopy with x-ray magnetic linear dichroism, the evolution of the AF phase was studied. Differences in the morphology of AF and FM phases were found, with the AF phase having a smaller feature size limited by defects. Finally, interfacial FM at the interface with capping layers is due to an alloying effect with a third metallic element that stabilizes the FM phase at room temperature by lowering the transition temperature.

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