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  • UV Light Reveals Secrets of Nanoelectronic Materials
Oct 2006
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa., Oct. 27, 2006 -- Using the new method of ultraviolet Raman spectroscopy, scientists have been able to measure, for the first time, the conditions at which certain ultrathin materials spontaneously become electrically polarized. The research provides a basis for understanding this "ferroelectric" state in materials needed to produce next-generation computer memory chips and other devices.

"We provide a complete picture of how the ferroelectric transition temperature changes when the electrical and mechanical conditions change within nanoscale ferroelectric materials," said Xiaoxing Xi, professor of physics and materials science and engineering at Pennsylvania State University, who led an international team of scientists in the research effort. RamanDiagram.jpg
Room-temperature Raman spectra of (1) a bare strontium titanate substrate (black curve); (2) a barium-titanate/strontium-titanate superlattice (blue curve) measured with visible light; and (3) the same superlattice measured with ultraviolet light (red curve). The dashed black line shows the bare strontium titanate substrate spectrum measured with UV light.
The team is the first to use ultraviolet (UV) Raman spectroscopy to reveal a range of temperatures, thicknesses and structural configurations at which nanoscale barium titanate can store a switchable electric field. The scientists also performed theoretical calculations to predict the point at which materials transition into this ferroelectric state. The results of these calculations closely match the results of the team's experiments.

"The work led by Xiaoxing Xi on nanothick ferroelectric multilayers is groundbreaking," said Refik Kortan, a program manager at the Basic Energy Sciences division of the US Department of Energy, one of the sponsors of the US-funded research project. "It is truly remarkable that UV-Raman can resolve displacements in ultrathin films that are just a few atomic layers thick."

Various difficulties exist in fabricating materials that can retain their ferroelectric properties at small dimensions and at temperatures at or above room temperature. "How thin can a ferroelectric material be at room temperature?" is the fundamental question that lies at the root of efforts to determine how much data can be stored on next-generation electronic devices.

"We found that a film of barium titanate (BaTiO3) whose thickness is just 4-tenths of a nanometer--or 4-hundred-millionths of a centimeter--can retain its ferroelectric properties when it is layered in thin sandwiches with non-ferroelectric layers of strontium titanate (SrTiO3)," said Darrell Schlom, professor of materials science and engineering at Penn State and a member of the research team. "This layer is just one molecule of barium titanate thick, the thinnest imaginable, but we have shown that it is ferroelectric at room temperature."

Xi said, "The ferroelectric layer can induce ferroelectric properties in neighboring layers that normally are not ferroelectric, especially in materials that are easily polarized. For example, we found that even one layer of ferroelectric barium titanate is capable of polarizing 13 adjacent layers of strontium titanate."

The scientists found that they could manipulate ferroelectricity by imposing different kinds of electrical and mechanical boundary conditions. The electrical conditions include the degree of resistance to polarization of the nonferroelectric material. The mechanical conditions included sandwiching ferroelectric layers between different layers of other materials, which mechanically restricts the movement of the atoms.

By varying the thickness and composition of the nanoscale thin films, the researchers were able to change the phase-transition temperature by almost 500 K, obtaining ferroelectric properties more than 350 K -- over 600 ºF -- above room temperature. "Our research shows that, under favorable conditions, room-temperature ferroelectricity can be strong and stable in nanoscale systems," Xi said.

The research team includes 22 scientists working in labs at Penn State, the University of Puerto Rico, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Michigan, Los Alamos National Laboratory and Rutgers University in the US, as well as at the National Atomic Energy Commission in Argentina and the University of Valencia in Spain. The collaboration grew over time with the addition of scientists who had access to the best high-performance Raman spectroscopy devices and scientists who are specialists in materials fabrication, theoretical calculations and structural characterization.

The team successfully tackled Xi's goal of using UV Raman spectroscopy to detect the moment when vanishingly thin layers of materials developed ferroelectric properties under a variety of conditions -- a goal that leading experts in the field initially told him was so difficult that it was "impossible" to achieve.

"Because most measurement techniques that work for thick films don't work well for films less than 100 nanometers thick, a new technique was needed, and I believed that UV Raman spectroscopy should work," Xi said. "Our record thinnest detections so far with UV Raman spectroscopy are a layered superlattice film just 24 nanometers thick and a single-layer film just 10 nanometers thick."

Raman spectroscopy is a technique that uses electromagnetic radiation to probe the properties of a material. The probe used in the technique is a photon -- a quantum of light -- which interacts in the material with a phonon -- a quantum of sound. From the resulting change in the energy of the photon after it scatters off a material, scientists can measure the vibration energy of the lattice that is formed by the material's atoms. NanoscaleElectronics.jpg
An electron microscope image of a ferroelectric sandwich consisting of alternating dark ferroelectric layers of barium titanate and light nonferroelectric layers of strontium titanate. The bright dots in the dark layer are the positions of the barium titanate atoms. The distance between each line is about 0.4 nm and each of the bands is several nanometers. (Image: Xiaoqing Pan, University of Michigan)
Typically, the radiation used for Raman spectroscopy has the energy of visible green light, but light with this energy is not absorbed effectively by nanoscale ferroelectric films, and so it does not reveal much information about them. Ultraviolet light, however, is able to be absorbed, so Xi reasoned that it could be used with the Raman spectroscopy technique as an effective ferroelectricity detector for these nanoscale materials.

"We can take advantage of the change in the symmetry of the nanoscale material's crystal structure that occurs at the ferroelectric phase transition," Xi said. "Because Raman spectroscopy cannot detect the phonon above the phase transition, but it can detect it after the material becomes ferroelectric, we can use this technique to detect the temperature at which the ferroelectric phase transition occurs."

UV Raman spectroscopy is a very new technology that is in the early stages of being developed, and few instruments exist that can achieve the resolution that Xi and his research colleagues require.

"The number of photons that change their energies after interacting with phonons of lattice vibration is very small, and it is difficult to detect this weak signal at UV frequencies," Xi said. Xi overcame this obstacle by building a collaboration with scientists whose labs contained high-resolution UV Raman scattering systems, where his former postdoctoral fellow Dimitri Tenne, now an assistant professor of physics at Boise State University, made the measurements presented in the paper published in a recent issue of the journal Science.

"We have demonstrated that we can use UV Raman spectroscopy to discover more about the unusual phenomena that occur in ultrathin ferroelectric materials, and that it is possible to tune the ferroelectric properties of nanoscale materials by changing the electrical and mechanical boundary conditions," Xi said. "It is exciting to realize that this is just the beginning of a whole new field of research."

Other project sponsors include the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research, and NASA. For more information, visit:

barium titanate
A crystalline material used in piezoelectric devices.
That property of particular materials that determines that they will be polarized in one direction or the other, or reversed in direction, when a positive or negative electric field is applied, remaining so until disturbed.
The phenomenon whereby certain crystals exhibit spontaneous electric polarization. It is analogous with ferromagnetism.
Electromagnetic radiation detectable by the eye, ranging in wavelength from about 400 to 750 nm. In photonic applications light can be considered to cover the nonvisible portion of the spectrum which includes the ultraviolet and the infrared.
A quantum of thermal energy that can be used to help calculate the thermal vibration of a crystal lattice.
A quantum of electromagnetic energy of a single mode; i.e., a single wavelength, direction and polarization. As a unit of energy, each photon equals hn, h being Planck's constant and n, the frequency of the propagating electromagnetic wave. The momentum of the photon in the direction of propagation is hn/c, c being the speed of light.
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
raman spectroscopy
That branch of spectroscopy concerned with Raman spectra and used to provide a means of studying pure rotational, pure vibrational and rotation-vibration energy changes in the ground level of molecules. Raman spectroscopy is dependent on the collision of incident light quanta with the molecule, inducing the molecule to undergo the change.  
thin film
A thin layer of a substance deposited on an insulating base in a vacuum by a microelectronic process. Thin films are most commonly used for antireflection, achromatic beamsplitters, color filters, narrow passband filters, semitransparent mirrors, heat control filters, high reflectivity mirrors, polarizers and reflection filters.
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