Synopsis: “Breathing” Explains Light-Induced Darkening

Physics 13, s22
New experiments identify the movement of oxygen atoms as the origin of light-induced color changes in the material yttrium oxyhydride.
J. Montero/Uppsala University and APS/Alan Stonebraker

Several materials go through a reversible change in color or transparency when exposed to light. This so-called photochromism is commonly used to make sunglasses that darken in sunlight. In 2011, scientists discovered photochromism in the rare-earth-containing material yttrium oxyhydride (YHO), but the mechanism behind this specific example of light-induced darkening remained hidden. Now, José Montero from Uppsala University, Sweden, and colleagues show that YHO “breathes” out oxygen under illumination, causing it to change from transparent to black.

Photochromism has long been known to occur in silver halides and certain organic dyes. Silver halides, which are often used in photochromatic eyeglasses, owe their light response to photon-liberated electrons combining with silver ions. This electron-based mechanism does not account for the photochromism in YHO, so several research teams have sought other explanations.

Montero and colleagues hit upon their breathing mechanism while studying YHO films under both air and nitrogen gas environments. Surprisingly, the films bleached in air but remained dark in nitrogen. In addition, they found that the films became more hydrophobic under light exposure—whereas other metallic compounds become more hydrophilic. In piecing this puzzle together, the team realized that light caused a small fraction of oxygen atoms to diffuse out of the YHO crystal lattice—as they confirmed with x-ray spectroscopy. The resulting oxygen-depleted regions absorb light, explaining YHO’s light-induced darkening. The process reverses when the lights go off—and oxygen is re-absorbed by the material.

For photochromatic applications, YHO is more robust than organic dyes and more compatible with glass-glazing technologies than silver halides. For this reason, Montero and colleagues foresee using YHO films on “smart” windows that change color depending on the weather outside.

This research is published in Physical Review Materials.

–Michael Schirber

Michael Schirber is a Corresponding Editor for Physics based in Lyon, France.


Subject Areas

Materials Science

Related Articles

Synopsis: Solving a Magnetic Puzzle
Condensed Matter Physics

Synopsis: Solving a Magnetic Puzzle

Spectroscopic measurements explain why a van der Waals ferromagnet displays different magnetic behavior in its layered and bulk forms. Read More »

Viewpoint: Deadlocked Order and Disorder in the Strongest Metals
Condensed Matter Physics

Viewpoint: Deadlocked Order and Disorder in the Strongest Metals

The peak strength of a metal occurs when the boundaries between its grains and the grains themselves have the same strength. Read More »

Viewpoint: A Coordinated Approach to Chemical Reactivity
Materials Science

Viewpoint: A Coordinated Approach to Chemical Reactivity

Using a scanning probe microscope, researchers measure the dependence of an atom’s chemical reactivity on the number of chemical bonds it forms. Read More »

More Articles