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Determining the three-dimensional atomic structure of an amorphous solid


Amorphous solids such as glass, plastics and amorphous thin films are ubiquitous in our daily life and have broad applications ranging from telecommunications to electronics and solar cells1-4. However, owing to the lack of long-range order, the three-dimensional (3D) atomic structure of amorphous solids has so far eluded direct experimental determination5-15. Here we develop an atomic electron tomography reconstruction method to experimentally determine the 3D atomic positions of an amorphous solid. Using a multi-component glass-forming alloy as proof of principle, we quantitatively characterize the short- and medium-range order of the 3D atomic arrangement. We observe that, although the 3D atomic packing of the short-range order is geometrically disordered, some short-range-order structures connect with each other to form crystal-like superclusters and give rise to medium-range order. We identify four types of crystal-like medium-range order-face-centred cubic, hexagonal close-packed, body-centred cubic and simple cubic-coexisting in the amorphous sample, showing translational but not orientational order. These observations provide direct experimental evidence to support the general framework of the efficient cluster packing model for metallic glasses10,12-14,16. We expect that this work will pave the way for the determination of the 3D structure of a wide range of amorphous solids, which could transform our fundamental understanding of non-crystalline materials and related phenomena.

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