We study planar defects in epitaxial Co:ZnO dilute magnetic semiconductor thin films deposited on c-plane sapphire (Al2O3), as well as the Co:ZnO/Al2O3 interface, using aberration-corrected transmission electron microscopy and electron energy-loss spectroscopy. Co:ZnO samples that were deposited using pulsed laser deposition and reactive magnetron sputtering are both found to contain extrinsic stacking faults, incoherent interface structures, and compositional variations within the first 3–4 Co:ZnO layers next to the Al2O3 substrate. The stacking fault density is in the range of 1017 cm−3. We also measure the local lattice distortions around the stacking faults. It is shown that despite the relatively high density of planar defects, lattice distortions, and small compositional variation, the Co:ZnO films retain paramagnetic properties.

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