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Spontaneous electric fields in solid films: spontelectrics

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When dipolar gases are condensed at sufficiently low temperature onto a solid surface, they form films that may spontaneously exhibit electric fields in excess of 108V/m. This effect, called the ‘spontelectric effect’, was recently revealed using an instrument designed to measure scattering and capture of low energy electrons by molecular films. In this review it is described how this discovery was made and the properties of materials that display the spontelectric effect, so-called ‘spontelectrics’, are set out. A discussion is included of properties that differentiate spontelectrics from ferroelectrics and other species in which spontaneous polarisation may be found.
Spontelectric films may be composed of a number of quite mundane dipolar molecules that involve such diverse species as propane, nitrous oxide or methyl formate. Experimental results are presented for spontelectrics illustrating that the spontelectric field generally decreases monotonically with increased deposition temperature, with the exception of methyl formate that shows an increase beyond a critical range of deposition temperature. Films of spontelectric material show a Curie temperature above which the spontelectric effect disappears. Heterolayers may also be laid down creating potential wells on the nanoscale.
A model is put forward based upon competition between dipole alignment and thermal disorder, which is successful in reproducing the variation of the degree of dipole alignment and the spontelectric field with deposition temperature, including the behaviour of methyl formate. This model and associated data lead to the conclusion that the spontelectric effect is new in solid-state physics and that spontelectrics represent a new class of materials.

Original languageEnglish
JournalInternational Reviews in Physical Chemistry
Pages (from-to)345-392
Number of pages48
Publication statusPublished - 2013

    Research areas

  • ferroelectrics; dipole orientation; Curie points; heterostructures; polarised solids; spontelectrics

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