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High speed direct imaging of thin metal film ablation by movie-mode dynamic transmission electron microscopy.

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Obliteration of matter by pulsed laser beams is not only prevalent in science fiction movies, but finds numerous technological applications ranging from additive manufacturing over machining of micro- and nanostructured features to health care. Pulse lengths ranging from femtoseconds to nanoseconds are utilized at varying laser beam energies and pulse lengths, and enable the removal of nanometric volumes of material. While the mechanisms for removal of material by laser irradiation, i.e., laser ablation, are well understood on the micrometer length scale, it was previously impossible to directly observe obliteration processes on smaller scales due to experimental limitations for the combination of nanometer spatial and nanosecond temporal resolution. Here, we report the direct observation of metal thin film ablation from a solid substrate through dynamic transmission electron microscopy. Quantitative analysis reveals liquid-phase dewetting of the thin-film, followed by hydrodynamic sputtering of nano- to submicron sized metal droplets. We discovered unexpected fracturing of the substrate due to evolving thermal stresses. This study confirms that hydrodynamic sputtering remains a valid mechanism for droplet expulsion on the nanoscale, while irradiation induced stress fields represent limit laser processing of nanostructured materials. Our results allow for improved safety during laser ablation in manufacturing and medical applications.

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