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Aspen lecture to explore future of ferroelectrics

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – For more than 100 years, physicists have taken an interest in ferroelectrics – substances that, unlike most materials, demonstrate an electric polarization even in the absence of an external electric field. The ferroelectrics field might never catch the imagination of the general public in the manner of robots or Lady Gaga, but soon enough, ferroelectrics – or more likely, what ferroelectrics are capable of doing – could earn a measure of widespread appreciation.

Alexie Kolpak, a physicist doing postdoctoral work at Yale, says that one of the uses of ferroelectrics that is visible on the near horizon is vastly reducing the energy consumed by computers. The 29-year-old Pennsylvania native noted that each time you use your computer, an electronic field is turned on that flips vast quantities of zeroes to ones in the process that creates digital information. That field must stay on for the information to be saved – making computers a huge source of energy use.

But through the distinguishing characteristic of ferroelectric materials, “This field is there,” Kolpak said. “You don’t have to apply an electric field to have this polarization.” The result is a big savings in power usage. “You save on your power bill. So a lot of companies are very interested in this sort of thing.”

For years, the center of ferroelectric activity has been Williamsburg, Virg., where physicists gather for the annual Workshop on Fundamental Physics of Ferroelectrics. But even physicists benefit from a change in scenery every so often, and this year, the group of 100 has assembled at the Aspen Center for Physics for a week of presentations and discussions that began on Sunday.

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Wednesday, the public can get a taste of the conference. A free Winter Physics Lecture, at 5:20 p.m. at the Wheeler Opera House, will feature Jeremy Levy, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, speaking on the topic of “Etch-a-Sketch Nanoelectronics,” describing how the children’s toy has led to a key discovery in ferroelectrics. The informal Physics Cafe, at 4:30 p.m. in the Wheeler lobby, will have two additional participants in the conference, Eric Cross and David Vanderbilt, talking about their work and taking questions.

As sexy as energy-saving technologies are, Kolpak has focused her attention on an equally hot topic: saving the environment. A theorist whose explorations are largely on the atomic scale, Kolpak spends much of her time thinking about the first principles of ferroelectric material: how it behaves on a very small scale.

But that hasn’t stopped her from looking up now and then to take account of the bigger picture. Because of their inherent property of electric polarization – they are “naturally happier when they’re separated,” is how Kolpak puts it – ferroelectrics interact with other materials in interesting ways.

One big area of investigation, which Kolpak is involved in, is using ferroelectrics to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and have it react with some other compound. The process would thus remove a substance that has been fingered as a primary culprit in global warming, and, it is hoped, actually create a more beneficial product.

As a theorist, Kolpak is several layers removed from saving the environment. But when it comes time to interact with the general public, or to ask for funding, she is happy to get into the practical applications of ferroelectrics.

“These are the things we say when we’re trying to get grants from the government,” she said of topics like energy savings and reducing the level of carbon dioxide in the air. “They want to see something practical. We physicists, we’re interested in understanding the physics and chemistry at the atomic scale. Knowing that, we’d like to engineer these things to get them to do exactly what we want.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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