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  • $1.2M US-German Grant Funds Ferroelectric Research
Nov 2006
ARLINGTON, Va., Nov. 28, 2006 -- Five universities in the US and Germany have received a grant from the National Science Foundation and the German Research Foundation (DFG) to study ferroelectric materials, which are used in electronic and optical devices, more in depth than ever before.

VolkmarDierolf.jpgThe three-year, $1.2-million Materials World Network grant will support research and student exchanges involving Lehigh University, the University of Florida and Penn State University and the Universities of Bonn and Paderborn in Germany. It is led by Volkmar Dierolf, associate physics professor at Lehigh in Bethlehem, Pa.

The Materials World Network grant, which is administered by Arlington-based National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Division of Materials Research, is highly competitive. Applicants are evaluated twice -- first by NSF and then by the research funding agency in the partner country, which in this case is Germany’s DFG.

“We ended up as highly recommended by both research agencies,” Dierolf said, “which was fortunate, as the DFG was not able to fund all the American groups that had received first-round approval from NSF.”

Ferroelectric materials are used in many electronic and optical applications, ranging from barcode readers in supermarkets to high-speed electro-optic modulators to devices that power the information superhighway.

In the new project, "Nanoscale Structure and Shaping of Ferroelectric Domains," researchers will conduct lab experiments and computer simulations to study the properties of ferroelectric domain walls in ferroelectric materials.

Ferroelectric materials have intrinsic microscopic electric dipoles, or molecular units with a positive charge on one end and a negative charge on the other. The materials have a built-in asymmetry, Dierolf said, that causes all dipoles to point in one direction, either up or down. Ferroelectric domains are regions of a ferroelectric material with the same dipole orientation. Ferroelectric domain walls separate domains with opposite dipole orientations.

"A material's nonlinear, acoustic, electric and other properties depend on the direction of this dipole," he said, "and the dipole can be manipulated and controlled in order to engineer devices."

Dierolf develops ion probes that can be monitored by their emission spectrum to examine how defects -- both intentional and unintentional -- affect the properties of materials at the submicron scale. Dierolf and his students are trying to learn how small the ferroelectric domain can be.

"As with soup bubbles, the bigger domains tend to grow at the expense of the smaller ones. Many exciting devices could be realized if we learned to reduce the domain size," Dierolf said.

Dierolf uses a technique called near-field optical spectroscopy to study the ferroelectric domains, and his group is the first to use it to image domain-wall structures.

"Ordinary optical microscopy resolves to the width of a wavelength," said Dierolf. "When we use near-field optical microscopy, we insert a tip with an opening measuring one-tenth of a micron into the focused light to increase the microscope's resolution. One of our specialties is to observe domain inversion in the microscope in real time. For that, we apply an electric field through the tip to make the domains switch while we monitor the emission of our probes."

The goal of the researchers, he said, is not only to image the ferroelectric materials but also to learn to control their domains at the nanoscale. Using near-field optical spectroscopy, Dierolf has imaged the domain wall regions with a resolution of 70 nm, and has made local electric field measurements along that length, obtaining instant feedback about domain growth and the shape of domains and domain walls.

The other university researchers in the international collaboration are engaged in a variety of tasks related to ferroelectric materials. Some are attempting to simulate the behaviors of the domain walls, while others are seeking to fabricate new integrated optical devices.

"This is an integrated approach that bridges the gulf between fundamental scientific research and the pursuit of actual applications," said Dierolf, whose previous research has been reported in the journal Applied Physics Letters and in the magazine Photonics Spectra, among others.

"We are attempting to span the gamut from theory to control of materials to fabrication of devices," he said. 

Until now, much of the research into ferroelectric materials has been conducted at either the bulk (large) or atomic scale, he said, and the US-German collaborators are charting new territory.

"The range at which we are studying these materials falls between the bulk and atomic scales. The collective phenomenon that occurs when a group of atoms switches their dipoles involves a few hundred atoms. This lies between what the atomic physicists have learned by studying actual individual atoms and what materials scientists have learned by studying much larger assemblies of thousands or tens of thousands of atoms.

"This is the nature of research into ferroelectric materials at the nanoscale. We look at things that are neither individual atoms or defects nor bulk materials, but rather are in between those two," he said. 

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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.
Pertaining to optics and the phenomena 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...
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