X-ray radiation excited ultralong (>20,000 seconds) intrinsic phosphorescence in aluminum nitride single-crystal scintillators

X-ray-excited phosphorescence in AlN SCs

The AlN SCs used in all experiments are grown by a high-temperature (2200 °C) physical vapor transport (PVT) method32. Due to such high temperature, it is difficult to obtain high-quality defect-free crystals, and that is why they are always accompanied by various defects such as aluminum vacancies (VAl), nitrogen vacancies (VN), and oxygen substitutional impurity (ON)33,34,35,36,37. AlN is a typical polar semiconductor, which makes the tendency of produced defects different along crystal orientation, or in other words, the required formation energies required by defects are different38,39,40. The N atoms are usually used as end-capping atoms along [001] orientation, which can produce VN defects on the crystal face along [001] orientation under high-temperature growth condition33. Therefore, the obtained AlN SCs usually show a pale-yellow color. The X-ray diffraction (XRD) pattern of AlN SCs (Fig. 1a) shows strong characteristic diffraction peak (002) with obvious accompanying kα 2 peak and narrow full width at half maximum (FWHM; ~0.03 degree, fitted with a Gaussian function), indicating that the crystal possesses single-crystal quality along c orientation. The inset shows a photograph of the AlN SC with a large diameter of about 15 mm and yellowish color. Under 193 nm ArF laser excitation, the PL spectra of the AlN SC shows an obvious band edge emission at 208 nm (~5.96 eV, Supplementary Fig. 1a) at room temperature22,32,40,41,42,43. In Supplementary Fig. 1b, the Raman spectra shows vibration modes of phonons at 248 cm−1 (E2(1)), 658 cm−1 (E2(2)), and 912 cm−1 (E1(LO)) with a 488-nm laser as excitation at room temperature. The FWHM of E2(2) mode is 4.59 cm−1, which demonstrates the high crystalline quality of the AlN SCs44.

Fig. 1: Crystal structure and phosphorescence of AlN SCs.

a XRD pattern of AlN SC shows obvious characteristic (002) peak (kα 2 peak). The insets show the crystal structure viewed on (110) and (001) faces; N atoms and Al atoms are in orange and blue, respectively. The optical photograph shows a sample of AlN SCs with the diameter of about 15 mm. b Displacement coordinate schematic of phosphorescence emission. Ground state (S0) electrons are excited into singlet excited state (S1) and the electrons in S1 state transit to triplet excited state (T1) by obtaining an intersystem crossing energy of ∆E. The transitions from S1 to S0 usually emit fluorescence (Fluor.) and thermal-active delay fluorescence (TADF), and from T1 to S0 the transitions emit long-living phosphorescence (Phosph.). The phosphorescence spectra of AlN SCs after X-ray excitation for 0 s (c), 3600 s (d), and 7200 s (e) is compared. The insets show corresponding optical photographs collected by a UV-sensitive iCCD detector. f PL intensity plots with decay time show that the time evolution of UV and yellow phosphorescence matches well with exponential decay function.

For inorganic materials, defects will also give rise to fluorescence and phosphorescence emission45. In one case, compared with the direct radiative transition in band to band, there is one more relaxation process to trap carriers added to the in-bandgap defect transition, which makes the time of defect-related fluorescence emission longer than that of band-to-band fluorescence emission in most time. In another case, when the excited electrons are in trapped state for a long time and they cannot be transited back to the ground state directly, then they will be stored. The electrons in the trapped state are excited by additional energy, and then recombine to emit phosphorescence. Such a mechanism can be described by a typical phosphorescence model; in displacement coordinates, ground state (S0) electrons are excited into singlet excited state (S1). The electrons in S1 state also can transit to triplet excited state (T1) by obtaining an intersystem crossing energy of ∆E. The transitions from S1 to S0 usually emit fluorescence (Flour.) and thermal-active delay fluorescence, as well as the long-living phosphorescence (Phosph.) from T1 to S0 (see Fig. 1b).

In Fig. 1c–e, the PL spectra of AlN SC with turning on/off X-ray excitation show that the AlN SC has an obvious long-living UV phosphorescence. Under continuous X-ray excitation, the AlN SC shows two emission peaks located at UV (center wavelength about 352 nm) and yellow (607 nm) regions, respectively. When the X-ray source is turned off for 3600 and 7200 s, the crystal still shows obvious 24 and 15% of the original UV emission, respectively. The inset illustrations show optical photographs of the phosphorescence of AlN collected by a UV-sensitive intensified charge-coupled device (iCCD). In Fig. 1f, both the time evolution of UV and the yellow emission are well fitted with exponential decay function.

Temperature effect of the phosphorescence

In Fig. 2a, the time-dependent spectra show that the crystal still has obvious UV emission after 20,000 s when the X-ray source is turned off. The decay of yellow emission is faster than that of the UV emission. According to the PL spectra (Fig. 2b), the crystal has a distinct UV emission after 7200 s, while the yellow emission almost disappears. In Fig. 2c, both of the decay curve of UV and yellow phosphorescence can be well fitted by the bi-exponential decay function, from which a fast time constant ((tau _{{mathrm{1Yellow}}} = {mathrm{258}}{mathrm{.4}} pm {mathrm{18}}{mathrm{.7}},{rm{s}}), (tau _{{mathrm{1UV}}} = 636.4 pm 19.8,{rm{s}})) and a slow time constant ((tau _{{mathrm{2Yellow}}} = {mathrm{6919}} pm {mathrm{2114}}{mathrm{.4}},{rm{s}}), (tau _{{mathrm{2UV}}} = {mathrm{6095}}{mathrm{.9}} pm {mathrm{503}}{mathrm{.2}},{rm{s}})) can be extracted; the time constants indicate that the excited carriers are relaxed by two different radiation recombination paths by producing the phosphorescence. To quantitatively characterize the phosphorescence, a persistent time (Td) is defined as the time interval during which the emitting intensity decreases from 100 to 10%. Calculation shows that the Td of UV and yellow phosphorescence in AlN SCs are 9360 and 4320 s, respectively, from which it can be obviously concluded that the UV phosphorescence shows a longer Td than that of yellow phosphorescence, indicating a more significant weight of slow radiation recombination component in UV phosphorescence.

Fig. 2: X-ray excited ultralong phosphorescence in AlN SCs.

a Time-dependent PL spectra of the AlN SC, showing an ultralong (>20,000 s) UV phosphorescence. b Steady-state PL spectra after turning off X-ray for 0 and 7200 s. c Decay curve of the UV and yellow phosphorescence, which are well fitted to bi-exponential decay function. The calculated Tds of UV and yellow phosphorescence are 9360 and 4320 s, respectively. d Temperature-dependent PL spectra under X-ray excitation. e, f Extracted FWHM and intensities plotted with temperature, demonstrating that UV and yellow emission have thermal-related effect. gi show similar temperature effect of the phosphorescence.

Temperature-dependent PL spectra are used to further investigate the phosphorescence properties of AlN SCs. Under X-ray excitation, the crystals have a strong UV emission at low temperature (50 K), while the yellow emission is difficult to be observed (Fig. 2d). Besides, FWHM–temperature curve of the emission peaks (Fig. 2e) shows a reducing tendency with increasing temperature. Noticeably, different from conventional emissions from band-to-band transition and bound excitons, the emitting intensity in X-ray-excited AlN’s phosphorescence is enhanced with increasing temperature (Fig. 2f). This temperature effect indicates that the emissions may be involved in the thermal-related (phonon-assisted) radiation transition. By investigating the phosphorescence, it can be found that, 2 min later after turning off X-ray excitation, the emission shows the same temperature-dependent effect (Fig. 2g–i), and the thermal-related radiation transition is also verified46. In temperature-dependent Raman spectra, a slight red shift and a broadened FWHM of the E2(2) and E1(LO) modes (Supplementary Fig. 2) are also observed, indicating a remarkable thermal-related lattice vibration in AlN SCs.

Mechanism of the phosphorescence

Under X-ray and 266 nm pulse laser excitation, the AlN SCs show strong UV and yellow emissions, which can be fitted to extract two components (Fig. 3a). As is known, AlN is a typical ultrawide bandgap SC with a bandgap of about 6.2 eV. Theoretically, the energy of excitation source should be greater than the bandgap, and thus the valence band electrons can be excited to conduction band effectively. The two emission also can be produced under 266 nm (~4.66 eV) laser excitation, indicating that there may be defect energy level in the bandgap. The role of defects also is investigated by density functional theory calculation introducing potential point defects (Supplementary Fig. 3), including VN, VAl, ON, and couple of VAl and ON34,36. In Fig. 3b, the VAl introduces an acceptor energy level near the valence band maximum (VBM), and the VN defect introduces two donor energy levels near the conduction band minimum (CBM) and an acceptor energy level near the VBM. Something worthy of attention is that the energy between two donor energy levels and acceptor energy level is in good agreement with the energy of UV (~3.52 eV) and yellow (~2.05 eV) emissions, indicating that the emission can be attributed to the radiative transition from donors to acceptors.

Fig. 3: Mechanism of ultralong intrinsic phosphorescence.

a PL spectra of AlN SC under X-ray and 266 nm laser excitation, respectively. b The DOS of AlN with potential defects, including VN, VAl, ON, and couple of VAl and ON. c The PDOS of AlN with VN defect that introduces two donor energy levels and an acceptor energy level in inner bandgap. d Energy band diagram describes the radiative transition mechanism of phosphorescence (Phosph.) with stable transition from N 2p orbit to N 2p + Al 3p orbit.

In the energy band structure and partial density of states of AlN with VN, N 2p orbits obviously contribute to valence band, conduction band, and even donor and acceptor energy level (Fig. 3c). Usually, the direct transitions between N 2p orbits will be forbidden because of their same parity. According to the quantum theory of optoelectronics, the parity of initial orbit and final orbit of electrons should be changed when the transition occurs. Therefore, the electron transition of p-to-p orbits is usually forbidden, which stops the excited electrons on N 2p orbit from being directly transited to ground state on N 2p orbit. Considering the momentum selection rule, only the excited electrons those satisfy both momentum and parity conditions can realize direct transition.

Figure 3d shows the energy band diagram, which depicts the mechanism model of phosphorescence caused by native VN defects in AlN SCs. By absorbing high-energy X-ray photons, electrons in inner valence band are excited to the high-energy states of conduction band. A part of excited electrons can rapidly fluoresce by allowing direct radiative transitions, as such fast fluoresce exhibit strong self-absorption effect. There are still many unstable excited state electrons in N 2p orbit of the donor. The excited N 2p electrons can finally recombine with those holes trapped in N 2p + Al 3p orbit of the acceptor by absorbing a phonon or extra perturbation energy. Such recombination of pp orbital electron–hole pairs forming stable triplet excited state excitons due to orbital parity rule can produce an effective persistent phosphorescence2,21. For the AlN SCs, the presence of VN provides the electronic structure configuration that leads to the UV ultralong (352 nm, >20,000 s) phosphorescence.

Defect and spectral analysis

In the aspect of semiconductor fabrication techniques, annealing in source atmosphere is usually regarded as an effective method for reducing defects. Based on this method, high-temperature N2 annealing is used to reduce the VN defects of AlN SCs on crystal surface. The PL spectra excited by 266 nm laser after annealing shows an obvious decrease in the intensity of UV and yellow emission of the crystal (Fig. 4a). Under 325 nm excitation, the crystal only has yellow emission. In Fig. 4a, the PL spectra under different excitation present a reasonable variation that the UV emission disappears under 325 nm excitation, which is consistent with the calculation of VN defect energy level. Notably, the radiative transitions under low-energy (much less than X-rays) excitation are quite fast, which explains that the absorption transition strictly follows the quantum selection rule under low-energy excitation (see Supplementary Fig. 4). The excited-state electrons are allowed for direct radiative transition. After high-temperature N2 annealing, the transmission spectra of AlN SCs show no obvious change, and the differential transmittance is shown in the inset (in Fig. 4b). Two variations of slope are presented in the spectra, indicating that the crystals should have two different edges of absorption. The energies of calculated absorption edge are also consistent with the results of the spectral and theoretical calculations above, corresponding to the two defect energy levels.

Fig. 4: Analysis of surface defects in AlN SCs with high-temperature N2-annealing process.

a PL spectra of the AlN SCs under 266 and 325 nm laser excitation. The N2-rich-treated AlN shows obviously weaker PL emission than that of as-grown one under 266 nm laser excitation with equal excitation power. b Transmission spectra of the AlN SCs shows no obvious change after high-temperature N2-annealing process. The inset is differential transmission (dT). There are two variations of slope in the transmission curve, corresponding to the absorption of VN defects. c Proportion of atomic binds in AlN SC and N2-rich treated AlN SC. X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS) shows the characteristic peaks of Al 2p electrons (d, e) and N 1 s electrons (f, g).

The analysis of elements and chemical bonds configuration after high-temperature surface treatment is performed by using an X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS), as shown in Supplementary Fig. 5. Generally, the photoelectronic spectra is strongly correlated with its chemical atomic state, so the XPS spectra is a useful tool for elemental analysis of crystal surfaces. In Fig. 4c, the elemental statistics of AlN SCs with high-temperature N2 annealing show that the atomic proportion of VN is significantly reduced after N2 annealing. For a detailed investigation, Al 2p and N 1 s are observed, respectively (Fig. 4d). Obviously, the fitted characteristic Al–O–N and VN peaks of Al 2p and N 1 s are reduced after N2 annealing. The results of bond analysis after surface treatment further demonstrate that the luminescence mechanism is related to the VN defects in AlN SCs.

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