The combination of inversion symmetry breaking and spin-orbit coupling (SOC) give rise to spin-orbit torque (SOT), charge pumping, and chiral magnetism. In conventional SOT studies, the inversion symmetry breaking usually comes from the structure or the geometry, e.g. crystal inversion assymmety in the bulk of diluted ferromagnet with zinc-blende structure (Fig. 1a) and space inversion assymmetry in a heavy metal/ferromagnet bilayer (Fig. 1b). It was known that the SOT strength can be controlled by the magnitude of the SOC, therefore, heavy metals with large SOC has been widely used for SOT-based magnetic random-access memory (MRAM). In our study, we demonstrated that the vertical composition gradient in a single FePt layer acts as a new type of inversion symmetry breaking (Fig. 1c). The SOT efficiencies scale almost linearly with the composition gradient (G), which is defined to be the change of the Co/Pt ratio per 1 nm. We found that by changing G from 0.31 %/nm to 0.71 %, the SOT efficiency increases by 300 %. In experiments, the composition gradient can be easily controlled during sample growth. Therefore, our work provides a powerful tool to tune the SOT strength. Then we demonstrated the current-induced magnetization switching in a FePt single layer (Fig. 1e). However, this switching requires an in-plane external magnetic field to break the symmetry. For real application, it is pursued to realize magnetic field-free switching. To achieve this goal, we move our attention from L10 FePt (P4/mmm) to fcc CoPt3. Both of them possess good perpendicular magnetic anisotropy (PMA) and hold promise in magnetic storage (media and memory). We found that the CoPt3 has two structural properties, as illustrated in Fig. 2(a). One is the composition gradient along the thickness direction which can break the inversion symmetry and allows for the generation of the in-plane damping-like torque. The other is the formation of the Co platelets in the Pt-rich matrix near the substrate during growth. We can make a symmetry analysis of the Co platelet/Pt structure, and we can easily find that the mirror symmetry is broken relative to the (11-2) plane and preserved relative to the (1-10) plane. Therefore, when the current is applied along the 1-10 direction (low-symmetry axis), the lateral mirror symmetry is broken so that the out-of-plane SOT can be allowed. Then we can achieve the field-free magnetization switching (0 deg in Fig. 2c). In contrast, when the current is applied along the 11-2 direction (high-symmetry axis), the lateral mirror symmetry is preserved and there is no field-free switching (90 deg in Fig. 2c). We also found that the current-induced switching exhibit a three-fold angular dependence on the current angle (θI), which is in perfect agreement with the three-fold rotational symmetry of the crystal structure in Fig. 2b. To summarize, we observed the field-assisted magnetization switching in FePt single layer by introducing a new type of inversion symmetry breaking: composition gradient. Furthermore, we demonstrated the symmetry-dependent field-free magnetization switching in the CoPt3 single layer. The composition gradient along the film's normal direction gives rise to the in-plane damping-like torque while the low symmetry (3m1) property at the interface of Co platelet/Pt gives rise to the 3m torque in CoPt3. The cooperation of these two effects leads to a three-fold field-free switching in the CoPt3 single layer. Our result of the self-switching in CoPt3 has provided one of the most simplified structures for field-free switching of perpendicular magnetization. The good endurance and high thermal stability make it a good candidate for magnetic memory devices and other spintronic applications.
1 L. Liu, et.al., Electrical switching of perpendicular magnetization in a single ferromagnetic layer Physical Review B 101 (22), 220402 (2020).
2 L.Liu, et.al., Current-induced self-switching of perpendicular magnetization in CoPt single layer Nature Communication 13, 3539 (2022).