Bonding similarities and differences between Y–Sb–Te and Sc–Sb–Te phase-change memory materials
The scandium (Sc) - alloyed Sb2Te3 phase-change alloy has recently been found to enable ultrafast crystal nucleation due to the formation of Sc-stabilized octahedral motifs in the amorphous phase, rendering cache-type phase-change memory feasible. When yttrium (Y) is added, however, non-octahedral bonding patterns form in the amorphous Sb2Te3-based network even though Y has a valence electron configuration similar to that of Sc and also forms perfect octahedral bonding environments with tellurium in the YTe crystal. Here we elucidate the origin of this difference between Sc and Y, by carrying out thorough ab initio simulations and orbital-based bonding analyses on amorphous Y-Sb-Te and Sc-Sb-Te compounds. We also demonstrate how the smooth overlap of atomic positions (SOAP) similarity kernel can be used to quantify the structural similarity of local motifs in the amorphous phase with respect to various crystalline yttrium and scandium tellurides, both in the nearest-neighbor shell and beyond. We find that the bonding contrast of Y- and Sc-centered structural motifs in amorphous Sb2Te3 stems from their parent crystals at high Te concentrations. The larger atomic radius of Y and the weaker charge transfer when bonded with Te is found to allow more Te neighbors and cause a more open bonding environment, leading to higher coordination numbers and non-octahedral environments. We discuss the implications of the different local environments for practical applications in memory devices.