Argonne physicist Chris Benmore and postdoctoral appointee Qiang Mei, along with colleagues at the University of Arizona, used microscopic laser-perforated diamond anvil cells to generate pressures of up to 32 gigapascals (GPa) – roughly one-tenth the pressure at the center of the Earth. By "squashing" vitreous (glassy) arsenic oxide samples between the anvils, the researchers were able to determine the mechanism behind the structure's atypical behavior under high-pressure.
This research may have far-reaching affects in the geophysical sciences, Benmore said, because oxide glasses and liquids represent a significant percentage of the materials that make up the Earth. For example, knowing the atomic structure of oxide materials at high pressures may give scientists a window on the behaviors of magma during the formation of the early Earth and moon. "We now have a technique where we can look a lot of different silicate glasses that are relevant to the Earth's process and at the complex behaviors of the melts that formed the Earth’s mantle," he said.
During their investigation, Benmore and Mei noticed that if arsenic oxide was subjected to high pressures the material underwent an unusual transformation at about 20 GPa, as the color of the compound changed from transparent to red. However, they did not know the atomic cause for this behavior.
By performing x-ray pair distribution function experiments at Argonne's Advanced Photon Source (APS), however, Benmore and Mei were able to see the atomic reconfiguration that produced the color change. Arsenic oxide, at normal pressures, typically exists in isolated molecular "cages" in which four arsenic atoms are surrounded by three oxygen atoms apiece – each of the six oxygen atoms is bounded to two arsenic atoms. When the pressure rose above 20 GPa, however, many of these molecular cages collapsed, creating new isomers in which each arsenic atom was bonded to six oxygen atoms.