Administered by:
University of Cambridge
Ferroelectricity is a characteristic of certain materials that have a spontaneous electric polarization that can be reversed by the application of an external electric field. All ferroelectrics are pyroelectric, with the additional property that their natural electrical polarization is reversible. The term is used in analogy to ferromagnetism, in which a material exhibits a permanent magnetic moment. Ferromagnetism was already known when ferroelectricity was discovered in 1920 in Rochelle salt by Valasek. Thus, the prefix ferro, meaning iron, was used to describe the property despite the fact that most ferroelectric materials do not contain iron. Materials that are both ferroelectric and ferromagnetic are known as multiferroics.

The nonlinear nature of ferroelectric materials can be used to make capacitors with tunable capacitance. Typically, a ferroelectric capacitor simply consists of a pair of electrodes sandwiching a layer of ferroelectric material. The permittivity of ferroelectrics is not only tunable but commonly also very high in absolute value, especially when close to the phase transition temperature. Because of this, ferroelectric capacitors are small in physical size compared to dielectric (non-tunable) capacitors of similar capacitance.

Ferroelectric materials are required by symmetry considerations to be also piezoelectric and pyroelectric. The combined properties of memory, piezoelectricity, and pyroelectricity make ferroelectric capacitors very useful, e.g. for sensor applications. Ferroelectric capacitors are used in medical ultrasound machines (the capacitors generate and then listen for the ultrasound ping used to image the internal organs of a body), high quality infrared cameras (the infrared image is projected onto a two dimensional array of ferroelectric capacitors capable of detecting temperature differences as small as millionths of a degree Celsius), fire sensors, sonar, vibration sensors, and even fuel injectors on diesel engines.

The internal electric dipoles of a ferroelectric material are coupled to the material lattice so anything that changes the lattice will change the strength of the dipoles (in other words, a change in the spontaneous polarization). The change in the spontaneous polarization results in a change in the surface charge. This can cause current flow in the case of a ferroelectric capacitor even without the presence of an external voltage across the capacitor. Two stimuli that will change the lattice dimensions of a material are force and temperature. The generation of a surface charge in response to the application of an external stress to a material is called piezoelectricity. A change in the spontaneous polarization of a material in response to a change in temperature is called pyroelectricity.

In 1974 R.B. Meyer used symmetry arguments to predict ferroelectric liquid crystals, and the prediction could immediately be verified by several observations of behavior connected to ferroelectricity in smectic liquid-crystal phases that are chiral and tilted. The technology allows the building of flat-screen monitors. Mass production between 1994 and 1999 was carried out by Canon. Ferroelectric liquid crystals are used in production of reflective LCoS.

In 2010 David Field found that prosaic films of chemicals such as nitrous oxide or propane exhibited ferroelectric properties. This new class of ferroelectric materials exhibit "spontelectric" properties, and may have wide-ranging applications in device and nano-technology and also influence the electrical nature of dust in the interstellar medium.