Low-energy ion irradiation of III-V semiconductor surfaces can lead to the formation of regular hexagonal dot patterns at the surface. We present experimental and computational results for ion irradiation of GaSb surfaces which elucidate the nature of the coupled compositional and morphological pattern-formation mechanisms. We demonstrate by in-situ grazing-incidence small-angle x-ray scattering (GISAXS) and angle-resolved Auger electron spectroscopy (ARAES) that the emergence of an altered compositional depth profile is essential to induce morphological changes at the surface. This morphological evolution of the surface follows nucleation-and-growth kinetics. Furthermore, we show from massive-scale molecular dynamics (MD) simulations that the compositional depth profile evolution leads to thermodynamic phase separation, providing a lateral compositional instability that drives pattern formation. Additionally, high-fluence simulations elucidate the irradiation-induced mechanisms of compositional depth profile formation. Prompt ion effects drive formation of single-element “protoclusters”, predominantly of Sb. Structural and energetic characterization of the simulation results indicate that Sb may be more mobile than Ga, providing a diffusional pathway for long-temporal-scale compositional evolution of the irradiated surface. Our findings motivate the development of new, comprehensive models which consider the total spatial and temporal complexity of multicomponent systems evolving under ion irradiation.
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