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Low-cost plastic memories from a ‘forgotten’ commodity polymer

18 March 2013

Scientists from the Zernike Institute for Advanced Materials of the University of Groningen and the German Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research have discovered a way to make a plastic memory from a commodity polymer. They have published their discovery in the journal Nature Materials.

The polymer they used is PVDF – polyvinylidene fluoride. This low-cost material is often used for membrane filters and packaging foils. It is well-known that PVDF is thermally and chemically extremely stable, but for application in a memory cell ferroelectric properties are essential. In other words, the material must exhibit an electric polarization, comparable to the north and south poles of a magnet. The polarization of ferroelectric materials can be switched by application of an electric field. The bistable polarization state can be used to store information.

Making a functional electric switch from neat PVDF is notoriously difficult. ‘There are two reasons for this’, says professor of physics Dago de Leeuw, one of the authors of the Nature Materials article. ‘First, it was very challenging to make a smooth, thin film from PVDF.’ Comprising films were rough, resembling microscopic sand paper. ‘In addition, conventional processing yields non-ferroelectric thin films because the PVDF crystallises in a non-polar phase.’

High temperatures

University of Groningen PhD student Mengyuan Li was able to resolve these problems. She used an alternative way to make thin films from PVDF. ‘Controlling the processing conditions turned out to be the crucial step’, says Li.

‘Usually you make this type of film at room temperature. PVDF, however, turns into a lovely smooth thin film at high temperatures’, explains De Leeuw. As a bonus, the films became ferroelectric after applying a short electrical pulse.

‘PVDF has four different crystal phases’, De Leeuw continues. With her work, Li has formed the delta phase, which is ferroelectric and also stable at high temperatures. The existence of delta-PVDF was predicted in the 1980s, but had never experimentally been proven in a thin film.

Ideal candidate

In the article, the researchers show that a plastic memory can be made of delta-PVDF. Plastic memories already exist, but they are made of a specialty copolymer of PVDF with trifluoroethylene. ‘That material is difficult to make, very expensive, and it also loses its ferroelectric properties at temperatures above 80 degrees Celsius. When that happens you lose all stored data.’ PVDF, on the other hand, costs next to nothing and the films preserve the stored information up to temperatures of about 170 degrees Celsius. As a result, delta-PVDF is the ideal candidate for data storage in plastic electronics.

Plastic electronics has developed rapidly and is now on the verge of commercialization, promising new applications from smart food packaging that keeps track of the expiration date, to wearable health monitors. All these applications require programmable non-volatile memory. The University of Groningen has already made several breakthroughs in the field of plastic electronics. De Leeuw: ‘Both the plastic ferroelectric transistor and the plastic ferroelectric diode were invented at the Zernike Institute for Advanced Materials of the University of Groningen. We can now add a usable plastic memory to that list.’ A European project (MOMA) is presently upscaling this new technology.

Additional information

More information: Prof. Dago de Leeuw

The research was conducted at the Zernike Institute for Advanced Materials, University of Groningen, and at the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research, Mainz, Germany.

Full reference:

Revisiting the δ-phase of poly(vinylidene fluoride) for solution-processed ferroelectric thin films.

Mengyuan Li1, Harry J.Wondergem2, Mark-Jan Spijkman1, Kamal Asadi2, Ilias Katsouras1, Paul W. M. Blom1,3 and Dago M. de Leeuw1,3

1 Zernike Institute for Advanced Materials, University of Groningen, Nijenborgh 4, 9747 AG, Groningen, The Netherlands,

2Philips Research Laboratories, High Tech Campus 4, 5656 AE, Eindhoven, The Netherlands,

3Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research, Ackermannweg 10, 55128 Mainz, Germany.

Nature Materials: Advanced Online Publication, published online: 17 March 2013

DOI: 10.1038/NMAT3577
Last modified:10 January 2018 3.51 p.m.
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