Unveiling the physics that governs the intertwining between the nanoscale self-organization and the dynamics of insulator-to-metal transitions (IMTs) is key for controlling on demand the ultrafast switching in strongly correlated materials and nanodevices. A paradigmatic case is the IMT in V2O3, for which the mechanism that leads to the nucleation and growth of metallic nanodroplets out of the supposedly homogeneous Mott insulating phase is still a mystery. Here, we combine x-ray photoemission electron microscopy and ultrafast nonequilibrium optical spectroscopy to investigate the early-stage dynamics of isolated metallic nanodroplets across the IMT in V2O3 thin films. Our experiments show that the low-temperature monoclinic antiferromagnetic insulating phase is characterized by the spontaneous formation of striped polydomains, with different lattice distortions. The insulating domain boundaries accommodate the birth of metallic nanodroplets, whose nonequilibrium expansion can be triggered by the photoinduced change of the 3d-orbital occupation. We address the relation between the spontaneous nanotexture of the Mott insulating phase in V2O3 and the timescale of the metallic seeds growth. We speculate that the photoinduced metallic growth can proceed along a nonthermal pathway in which the monoclinic lattice symmetry of the insulating phase is partially retained.
- Mott insulator
- insulator to metal transition