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Revisiting PbTe to identify how thermal conductivity is really limited

Published in Phys. Rev. B: https://journals.aps.org/prb/abstract/10.1103/PhysRevB.97.184305

Due to the long range interaction in lead telluride (PbTe), the transverse optical (TO) phonon becomes soft around the Brillouin zone center. Previous studies have postulated that this zone-center softening causes the low thermal conductivity of PbTe through either enlarged phonon scattering phase space and/or strengthened lattice anharmonicity. In this paper, we reported an extensive sensitivity analysis of the PbTe thermal conductivity to various factors: range and magnitude of harmonic and anharmonic interatomic force constants and phonon wave vectors in the three-phonon scattering processes. The analysis reveals that the softening by long range harmonic interaction itself does not reduce thermal conductivity, and it is the large magnitude of the anharmonic (cubic) force constants that realizes low thermal conductivity, however, not through the TO phonons around the zone center but dominantly through the ones with larger wave vectors in the middle of Brillion zone. The paper clarifies that local band softening cannot be a direct finger print for low thermal conductivity and that the entire Brillion zone needs to be characterized on exploring low thermal conductivity materials.

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