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Atomistic insight into the non-classical nucleation mechanism during solidification in Ni
Nucleation is a key step during crystallization, but a complete understanding of the fundamental atomistic processes remains elusive. We investigate the mechanism of nucleation during solidification in nickel for various undercoolings using transition path sampling simulations. The temperature dependence of the free energy barriers and rate constants that we obtain is consistent with the predictions of classical nucleation theory and experiments. However, our analysis of the transition path ensemble reveals a mechanism that deviates from the classical picture of nucleation: the growing solid clusters have predominantly non-spherical shapes and consist of face-centered-cubic and random hexagonal-close-packed coordinated atoms surrounded by a cloud of prestructured liquid. The nucleation initiates in regions of supercooled liquid that are characterized by a high orientational order with structural features that predetermine the polymorph selection. These results provide atomistic insight not only into the nucleation mechanism of nickel but also into the role of the preordered liquid regions as precursors for crystallization.