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While understanding the properties of materials under stress is fundamentally important, designing experiments to probe the effects of large tensile stress is difficult. Here tensile stress is created in thin films of potassium (up to 4 atomic layers) by epitaxial growth on a rigid support, graphite. We find that this "simple" metal shows a long-range, periodic "herringbone" reconstruction, observed in 2- and 3- (but not 1- and 4-) layer films by low-temperature scanning tunneling microscopy (STM). Such a pattern has never been observed in a simple metal. Density functional theory (DFT)simulations indicate that the reconstruction consists of self-aligned stripes of enhanced atom density formed to relieve the tensile strain. At the same time marked layer-dependent charging effects lead to substantial variation in the apparent STM layer heights.
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