The imperfection of strontium titanate

When you squeeze some crystals, you distort their lattice of atoms just enough to separate a pair of charged particles and that in turn gives rise to a voltage. Such materials are called piezoelectric crystals. Not all crystals are piezoelectric because the property depends on what the arrangement of atoms in the lattice is.

For example, the atoms of strontium, titanium and oxygen are arranged in a cubic structure to form strontium titanate (SrTiO3) such that each molecule displays a mirror symmetry through its centre. That is, if you placed a mirror passing through the molecule’s centre, the object plus its reflection would show the molecule as it actually is. Such molecules are said to be centrosymmetric, and centrosymmetric crystals aren’t piezoelectric.

In fact, strontium titanate isn’t ferroelectric or pyroelectric either – an external electric field can’t reverse their polarisation nor do they produce a voltage when they’re heated or cooled – for the same reason. Its crystal lattice is just too symmetrical.

The strontium titanate lattice. Oxygen atoms are red, titanium cations are blue and strontium cations are green.

However, scientists haven’t been deterred by this limitation (such as it is) because its perfect symmetry indicates that messing with the symmetry can introduce new properties in the material. There are also natural limits to the lattice itself. A cut and polished diamond looks beautiful because, at its surface, the crystal lattice ends and the air begins – arbitrarily stopping the repetitive pattern of carbon atoms.

An infinite diamond that occupies all points in the universe might look good on paper but it wouldn’t be nearly as resplendent because only the symmetry-breaking at the surface allows light to enter the crystal and bounce around. Similarly, centrosymmetric strontium titanate might be a natural wonder, so to speak, but the centrosymmetry also keeps it from being useful (despite its various unusual properties; e.g. it was the first insulator found to be a superconductor at low temperatures, in 1967).

Tausonite, a naturally occurring mineral form of strontium titanate. Credit: Materialscientist/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

So does strontium titanate exhibit pyro- or piezoelectricity on its surface? Surprisingly, while this seems like a fairly straightforward question to ask, it hasn’t been straightforward to answer.

A part of the problem is the definition of a surface. Obviously, the surface of any object refers to the object’s topmost or outermost layer. But when you’re talking about, say, a small electric current originating from the material, it’s difficult to imagine how you could check if the current originated from the bulk of the material or just the surface.

Researchers from the US, Denmark and Israel recently reported resolving this problem using concepts from thermodynamics 101. If the surface of strontium titanate is pyroelectric, the presence of electric currents should co-exist with heat. So if a bit of heat is applied and taken away, the material should begin cooling (or thermalising) and the electric currents should also dissipate. The faster the material cools, the faster the currents dissipate, and the faster the currents dissipate, the lower the depth to which the material is pyroelectric.

In effect, the researchers induced pyroelectricity and then tracked how quickly it vanished to infer how deeply inside the material it existed.

Both the bulk and the surface are composed of the same atoms, but the atomic lattice on the surface also has a bit of surface tension. Materials scientists have already calculated how deeply this tension penetrates the surface of strontium titanate, so the question was also whether the pyroelectric behaviour was contained in this region or went beyond, into the rest of the bulk.

The team sandwiched a slab of strontium titanate between two electrodes, at room temperature. At the crystal-electrode interface, which is a meeting of two surfaces, opposing charged particles on either side gather and neutralise themselves. But when an infrared laser is shined on the ensemble (as shown above), the surface of strontium titanate heats up and develops a voltage, which in turn draws the charges at its surface away from the interface. The charges in the electrode are then left without a partner so they flow through a wire connected to the other electrode and create a current.

The laser is turned off and the strontium titanate’s surface begins to cool. Its voltage drops and allows the charged particles to move away from each other, and some of them move towards the surface to once again neutralise oppositely charged particles from the other side. This process stops the current. So measuring how quickly the current drops off gives away how quickly the voltage vanishes, which gives away how much of the material’s volume developed a voltage due to the pyroelectric effect.

The penetration depth the group measured was in line with the calculations based on surface tension: about 1.2 nm. To be sure the effect didn’t involve the bulk, the researchers repeated the experiment with a thin layer of silica (the major component of sand) on top of the strontium titanate surface, and there was no electric current when the laser was on or off.

In fact, according to a report in Nature, the team also took various precautions to ensure any electric effects originated only from the surface, and due to effects intrinsic to the material itself.

… they checked that the direction of the heat-induced current does not depend on the orientation of the crystal, ruling out a bulk effect; and that the local heating produced by the laser is very small…, which means that the strain gradients induced by thermal expansion are insignificant. Other experiments and data analysis were carried out to exclude the possibility that the induced current is due to molecules … adsorbed to the surface, charges trapped by lattice defects, excitation of free electrons induced by light, or the thermoelectric Seebeck effect (which generates currents in semiconductors that contain temperature gradients).

Now we know strontium titanate is pyroelectric, and piezoelectric, on its surface at room temperature – but this is not all we know. During their experiments (with different samples of the crystal), the researchers spotted something odd:

The pyroelectric coefficient – a measure of the strength of the material’s pyroelectricity – was constant between 193 K and 225 K (–80.15º C to –48.15º C) but dropped sharply above 225 K and vanished above 380 K. The researchers note in their paper, published on September 18, that others have previously reported that the strontium titanate lattice near the surface changes from a cubic to a tetragonal structure at around 150 K, and that a similar transformation could be happening at 225 K.

In other words, the surface pyroelectric effect wasn’t just producing a voltage but could in fact be altering the relative arrangement of atoms itself. What the precise mechanism of action could be we don’t know – nor any other features that might arise in the material as a result. The researchers hope future studies can resolve these questions.