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The strain relaxation of GaN nucleation layers grown on sapphire (0001) during rapid thermal annealing was studied in a synchrotron x-ray scattering experiment. The as-grown GaN nucleation layer is compressively strained. Upon annealing to 750 °C, the lattice strain first changes to tensile. This tensile strain is released progressively as the annealing temperature increases. The nucleation layer sublimates significantly at 1050 °C where it becomes mostly strain-free hexagonal GaN. © 2001 American Institute of Physics.