Phase-change memories (PCM) are associated with reversible ultra-fast low-energy crystal-to-amorphous switching in GeTe-based alloys co-existing with the high stability of the two phases at ambient temperature, a unique property that has been recently explained by the high fragility of the glass-forming liquid phase, where the activation barrier for crystallisation drastically increases as the temperature decreases from the glass-transition to room temperature. At the same time the atomistic dynamics of the phase-change process and the associated changes in the nature of bonding have remained unknown. In this work we demonstrate that key to this behavior is the formation of transient three-center bonds in the excited state that is enabled due to the presence of lone-pair electrons. Our findings additionally reveal previously ignored fundamental similarities between the mechanisms of reversible photoinduced structural changes in chalcogenide glasses and phase-change alloys and offer new insights into the development of efficient PCM materials.
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