Grain Splitting Is a Mechanism for Grain Coarsening in Colloidal Polycrystals

Anna Rose Barth, Maya Helena Martinez, Cora Emerson Payne, Christopher Gray Couto, Izabela Joy Quintas, Thorthong Soncharoen, Nina M. Brown, Eli Joseph Weissler, and Sharon Gerbode

Physical Review E 104 (2021) L052601


In established theories of grain coarsening, grains disappear either by shrinking or by rotating as a rigid object to coalesce with an adjacent grain. Here we report a third mechanism for grain coarsening, in which a grain splits apart into two regions that rotate in opposite directions to match two adjacent grains’ orientations. We experimentally observe both conventional grain rotation and grain splitting in two-dimensional colloidal polycrystals. We find that grain splitting occurs via independently rotating “granules” whose shapes are determined by the underlying triangular lattices of the two merging crystal grains. These granules are so small that existing continuum theories of grain boundary energy are inapplicable, so we introduce a hard sphere model for the free energy of a colloidal polycrystal. We find that, during splitting, the system overcomes a free energy barrier before ultimately reaching a lower free energy when splitting is complete. Using simulated splitting events and a simple scaling prediction, we find that the barrier to grain splitting decreases as grain size decreases. Consequently, grain splitting is likely to play an important role in polycrystals with small grains. This discovery suggests that mesoscale models of grain coarsening may offer better predictions in the nanocrystalline regime by including grain splitting.