Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Promising Ferroelectric Materials Suffer From Unexpected Electric Polarizations


Head-to-head charge configuration explains major performance issues in ferroelectrics

Electronic devices with unprecedented efficiency and data storage may someday run on ferroelectrics—remarkable materials that use built-in electric polarizations to read and write digital information, outperforming the magnets inside most popular data-driven technology. But ferroelectrics must first overcome a few key stumbling blocks, including a curious habit of "forgetting" stored data.

Brookhaven National Laboratory

Electrostatic potential landscapes reconstructed from electron holography data with 15 volts of positive or negative current applied to the substrate (Nb-STO). The much steeper potential drop from the +15 V signifies a higher electric field, whereas the -15 V yielded a much flatter curve—indicating the charge asymmetry within the material.

Now, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory have discovered nanoscale asymmetries and charge preferences hidden within ferroelectrics that may explain their operational limits.

"The positive or negative polarizations in these ferroelectric materials should be incredibly easy to switch, but the reality is much stranger," said Brookhaven Lab physicist Myung-Geun Han, lead author on the new study. "To our surprise, opposing electronic configurations only allowed for polarization in one direction—a non-starter for reading and writing data."

The researchers used a suite of state-of-the-art techniques—including real-time electrical biasing, electron holography, and electron-beam-induced current measurements—to reveal never-before-seen electric field distributions in ferroelectric thin films, which were custom-grown at Yale University. The results, published in Nature Communications, open new pathways for ferroelectric technology.

Physics of Flipping

Most electronic devices rely on ferromagnetism to read and write data. Each so-called ferromagnetic domain contains a north or south magnetic polarity, which translates into the flipping 1 or 0 of the binary code underlying all digital information. But ferromagnetic operations not only require large electric current, but the magnets can flip each other like dominoes when packed together too tightly—effectively erasing any data.

Ferroelectrics, however, use positive or negative electric charge to render digital code. Crucially, they can be packed together with domains spanning just a few atoms and require only a tiny voltage kick to flip the charge, storing much more information with much greater efficiency.

"But ferroelectric commercialization is held up by material fatigue, sudden polarization reversal, and intrinsic charge preferences," said Brookhaven Lab physicist and study coauthor Yimei Zhu. "We suspected that the origin of these issues was in the atomic interactions along the material's interface—where the ferroelectric thin film sits on a substrate."

Interface Exploration

The scientists examined ferroelectric films of lead, zirconium, and titanium oxide grown on conductive substrates of strontium, and titanium oxide with a small amount of niobium—chosen because it exhibits large polarization values with well-defined directions, either up or down. The challenge was mapping the internal electric fields in materials thousands of times thinner than a human hair under actual operating conditions.

Brookhaven scientists hunted down the suspected interface quirks using electron holography. In this technique, a transmission electron microscope (TEM) fired 200,000-volt electron wave packets through the sample with billionth-of-a-meter precision. Negative and positive electric fields inside the ferroelectric film then attracted or repelled the electron wave and slightly changed its direction. Tracking the way the beam bent throughout the ferroelectric film revealed its hidden charges.

"Rather than an evenly distributed electric field, the bending electron waves revealed non-uniform and unidirectional electric fields that induced unstable, head-to-head domain configurations," Han said. "For the first time, we could see these unusual and jagged polarizations mapped out in real space and real time."

These opposing polarizations—like rival football teams squaring off aggressively at the line of scrimmage—surprised scientists and challenged assumptions about the ferroelectric phenomenon.

"These results were totally unexpected based on the present understanding of ferroelectrics," Han said.

The asymmetries were further confirmed by measurements of electron-beam-induced current. When a focused electron beam struck the ferroelectric sample, electric fields within the film-substrate interface revealed themselves by generating additional current. Other techniques, including piezoresponse force microscopy—in which a sub-nanometer tip induces a reaction by pressing against the ferroelectric—also confirmed the strange domains.

"Each technique demonstrated this intrinsic polarization preference, likely the origin of the back-switching and poor coding performance in these ferroelectrics," Han said. "But these domain structures should require a lot of energy and thus be very unstable. The interface effect alone cannot explain their existence."

Missing Oxygen

The scientists used another ultra-precise technique to probe the material's interface: electron energy loss spectroscopy (EELS). By measuring the energy deposited by an electron beam in specific locations—a kind of electronic fingerprint—the scientists determined the material's chemical composition.

"We suspect that more oxygen could be missing near the surface of the thin films, creating electron pockets that may neutralize positive charges at the domain walls," Han said. "This oxygen deficiency naturally forms in the material, and it could explain the stabilization of head-to-head domains."

This electron-swapping oxygen deficiency—and its negative effects on reliably storing data—might be corrected by additional engineering, Han said. For example, incorporating a "sacrificial layer" between the ferroelectric and the substrate could help block the interface interactions. In fact, the study may inspire new ferroelectrics that either exploit or overcome this unexpected charge phenomenon.

Other authors include Lijun Wu and Marvin A. Schofield of Brookhaven Lab; Matthew S. J. Marshall, Jason Hoffman, Frederick J. Walker, and Charles H. Ahn of the Yale University Department of Applied Physics and Center for Research on Interfaces Structures and Phenomena; Toshihiro Aoki of JEOL USA Inc.; and Ray Twesten of Gatan Inc.

The samples used for transmission electron microscopy (TEM) were prepared by Kim Kisslinger at Brookhaven Lab's Center for Functional Nanomaterials, a U.S. Department of Energy user facility.

The research was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.

Brookhaven National Laboratory is supported by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit

One of ten national laboratories overseen and primarily funded by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Brookhaven National Laboratory conducts research in the physical, biomedical, and environmental sciences, as well as in energy technologies and national security. Brookhaven Lab also builds and operates major scientific facilities available to university, industry and government researchers. Brookhaven is operated and managed for DOE's Office of Science by Brookhaven Science Associates, a limited-liability company founded by the Research Foundation for the State University of New York on behalf of Stony Brook University, the largest academic user of Laboratory facilities, and Battelle, a nonprofit applied science and technology organization.

Contact Information

Justin Eure
Public Affairs Representative

Justin Eure | newswise
Further information:

Further reports about: Electric Energy Ferroelectric Physics Science materials polarization polarizations

More articles from Materials Sciences:

nachricht Dielectric film has refractive index close to air
12.10.2015 | North Carolina State University

nachricht New Artificial Cells Mimic Nature’s Tiny Reactors
09.10.2015 | Department of Energy, Office of Science

All articles from Materials Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Secure data transfer thanks to a single photon

Physicists of TU Berlin and mathematicians of MATHEON are so successful that even the prestigious journal “Nature Communications” reported on their project.

Security in data transfer is an important issue, and not only since the NSA scandal. Sometimes, however, the need for speed conflicts to a certain degree with...

Im Focus: A Light Touch May Help Animals and Robots Move on Sand and Snow

Having a light touch can make a hefty difference in how well animals and robots move across challenging granular surfaces such as snow, sand and leaf litter. Research reported October 9 in the journal Bioinspiration & Biomimetics shows how the design of appendages – whether legs or wheels – affects the ability of both robots and animals to cross weak and flowing surfaces.

Using an air fluidized bed trackway filled with poppy seeds or glass spheres, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology systematically varied the...

Im Focus: Reliable in-line inspections of high-strength automotive body parts within seconds

Nondestructive material testing (NDT) is a fast and effective way to analyze the quality of a product during the manufacturing process. Because defective materials can lead to malfunctioning finished products, NDT is an essential quality assurance measure, especially in the manufacture of safety-critical components such as automotive B-pillars. NDT examines the quality without damaging the component or modifying the surface of the material. At this year's Blechexpo trade fair in Stuttgart, Fraunhofer IZFP will have an exhibit that demonstrates the nondestructive testing of high-strength automotive body parts using 3MA. The measurement results are available in a matter of seconds.

To minimize vehicle weight and fuel consumption while providing the highest level of crash safety, automotive bodies are reinforced with elements made from...

Im Focus: Kick-off for a new era of precision astronomy

The MICADO camera, a first light instrument for the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), has entered a new phase in the project: by agreeing to a Memorandum of Understanding, the partners in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Austria, and Italy, have all confirmed their participation. Following this milestone, the project's transition into its preliminary design phase was approved at a kick-off meeting held in Vienna. Two weeks earlier, on September 18, the consortium and the European Southern Observatory (ESO), which is building the telescope, have signed the corresponding collaboration agreement.

As the first dedicated camera for the E-ELT, MICADO will equip the giant telescope with a capability for diffraction-limited imaging at near-infrared...

Im Focus: Locusts at the wheel: University of Graz investigates collision detector inspired by insect eyes

Self-driving cars will be on our streets in the foreseeable future. In Graz, research is currently dedicated to an innovative driver assistance system that takes over control if there is a danger of collision. It was nature that inspired Dr Manfred Hartbauer from the Institute of Zoology at the University of Graz: in dangerous traffic situations, migratory locusts react around ten times faster than humans. Working together with an interdisciplinary team, Hartbauer is investigating an affordable collision detector that is equipped with artificial locust eyes and can recognise potential crashes in time, during both day and night.

Inspired by insects

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

EHFG 2015: Securing healthcare and sustainably strengthening healthcare systems

01.10.2015 | Event News

Conference in Brussels: Tracking and Tracing the Smallest Marine Life Forms

30.09.2015 | Event News

World Alzheimer`s Day – Professor Willnow: Clearer Insights into the Development of the Disease

17.09.2015 | Event News

Latest News

Smart clothing, mini-eyes, and a virtual twin – Artificial Intelligence at ICT 2015

13.10.2015 | Trade Fair News

Listening to the Extragalactic Radio

13.10.2015 | Physics and Astronomy

Penn study stops vision loss in late-stage canine X-linked retinitis pigmentosa

13.10.2015 | Health and Medicine

More VideoLinks >>>