Separation of current density and electric field domains caused by nonlinear electronic instabilities.
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In 1963 Ridley postulated that under certain bias conditions circuit elements exhibiting a current- or voltage-controlled negative differential resistance will separate into coexisting domains with different current densities or electric fields, respectively, in a process similar to spinodal decomposition of a homogeneous liquidor disproportionation of a metastable chemical compound. The ensuing debate, however, failed to agree on the existence or causes of such electronic decomposition. Using thermal and chemical spectro-microscopy, we directly imaged signatures of current-density and electric-field domains in several metal oxides. The concept of local activity successfully predicts initiation and occurrence of spontaneous electronic decomposition, accompanied by a reduction in internal energy, despite unchanged power input and heat output. This reveals a thermodynamic constraint required to properly model nonlinear circuit elements. Our results explain the electroforming process that initiates information storage via resistance switching in metal oxides and has significant implications for improving neuromorphic computing based on nonlinear dynamical devices.