Superhard materials consisting of light elements have recently received considerable attention because of their ultrahigh specific strength for a wide range of applications as structural and functional materials. However, the failure mechanisms of these materials subjected to high stresses and dynamic loading remain to be poorly known. We report asymmetric twins in a complex compound, boron carbide (B4C), characterized by spherical-aberration-corrected transmission electron microscopy. The atomic structure of boron-rich icosahedra at rhombohedral vertices and cross-linked carbon-rich atomic chains can be clearly visualized, which reveals unusual asymmetric twins with detectable strains along the twin interfaces. This study offers atomic insights into the structure of twins in a complex material and has important implications in understanding the planar defect-related failure of superhard materials under high stresses and shock loading.

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