Origins of Ferroelectricity

Congratulations to former Masters student Dom Allen, whose work on ferroelectricity in MDABCO-based perovskites has just been published in the Journal of Materials Chemistry C!

MDABCO perovskites (MDABCO = N-methyl-1,4-diazoniabicyclo[2.2.2]octane) are one of a new class of ferroelectric materials, which have properties that rival best-in-class materials such as barium titanate or lead zirconate titanate. Ferroelectrics have a wide range of hugely important applications as capacitors and memory storage (e.g., in smartphones and computers), sensors, actuators and non-linear optics.

Dom’s modelling showed that the key ingredients that drive spontaneous polarisation in [MDABCO][NH4][I3] and related structures are (i) alignment of the A-site cation along <111> directions, (ii) ever-present dipolar coupling, and (iii) strain coupling between neighbouring sites. Contrary to prevailing wisdom, he found that hydrogen bonding, whilst it may still be important in determining the magnitude of polarisation or transition temperature, is actually not essential to drive this phenomenon.

The paper, which was invited for cover art, is Open Access and can be read here.

Dom’s work was supplemented by first-principles calculations from Nick Bristowe and his co-supervisor at Oxford was Andrew Goodwin. Well done all!

Squeezing conductivity from a molecular crystal

Most molecular materials don’t conduct electricity well because the electrons in them can’t travel around easily. Materials that do conduct have pathways for their electrons, formed by overlapping atomic orbitals–the space where electrons usually stay–between molecules. In order to increase the conductivity of a molecular crystal, Nickel 5,6-dihydro-1,4-dithiin-2,3-dithiolate, we used high pressure to squeeze the molecules together.

This work was an international collaboration with some really talented scientists in the RIKEN institute, Japan, Kumamoto University, Japan, and Diamond Light Source synchrotron, UK.

Hengbo and Reizo at RIKEN made the molecular crystals and measured their conductivity under high pressure. They did this by attaching tiny wires to the crystal inside a Diamond Anvil Cell (DAC)–a device that generates pressure larger than found at the bottom of the ocean. They found that, whilst normally the crystal didn’t conduct electricity at all, when it was squeezed its conductivity increased dramatically.

In order to understand why, we used X-ray diffraction to work out the crystal structure–where the atoms are and how they are bonded together. Aided by Chloe and Mark, we fired intense X-ray beams produced at Diamond Light Source through our crystal in the DAC and measure how they scattered. From the scattering, we could show for the first time that the molecules got closer and closer together under pressure.

The final piece in the puzzle came from Takao at Kumamoto, who used theoretical calculations based on the X-ray crystal structures to work out the changes in orbital interactions. And the calculations showed that the orbitals between the molecules indeed overlapped more and more with pressure, explaining why the crystals’ conductivity got higher.

A link to the paper can be found here. It’s Open Access, meaning anyone can read it for free!

Thanks and well done to Hengbo, Takao, Chloe, Reizo and Mark!

Pre-equilibrium species in MOF crystallization

We’re very pleased to announce our paper on the crystallization of ZIF-8 has just been accepted! It’s been a challenging piece of work, not least because it all began when we made the surprising observation that crystallization got SLOWER when we increased the concentration of our reactants…

There is an increasingly large amount of interest in metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) for a variety of applications, from gas sensing and separations to electronics and catalysis. Their exciting properties arise from their modular architectures, which self-assemble from different combinations of metal-based and organic building units. However, the exact mechanisms by which they crystallize remain poorly understood, thus limiting any realisation of real “structure by design”. We report important new insight into MOF formation, gained using in situ X-ray diffraction, pH and turbidity measurements to uncover for the first time the evolution of metastable intermediate species in the canonical zeolitic imidazolate framework system, ZIF-8. We reveal that the intermediate species exist in a dynamic pre-equilibrium prior to network assembly and, depending on the reactant concentrations and the progress of reaction, the pre-equilibrium can be made to favour under- or over-coordinated species, thus accelerating or inhibiting crystallization, respectively. We thereby find that concentration can be effectively used as a synthetic handle to control particle size, with great implications for industrial scale-up and gas sorption applications. This finding enables us to rationalise the apparent contradictions between previous studies and, importantly, opens up new opportunities for the control of crystallization of network solids more generally, from the design of local structure to assembly of particles with precise dimensions.

The paper is published with Angewandte Chemie, International Edition and can be found here. A previous version can also be downloaded for free on ChemRxiv.

Many thanks to all co-authors, Diamond for beamtime, SCG Innovation for funding and everyone else that helped out along the way!

Farewell to Felicity

At the end of last week we bade farewell to our summer student, Felicity Massingberd-Mundy, who has spent the last six weeks doing a research project in the lab. She spent much of her time measuring MOF crystallisations using this cool Raspberry Pi-controlled setup, on loan from Richard Cooper‘s lab where it was made by Katie McInally in her Part II research project two years ago. We’re looking forward to writing up some of her results to publish soon; in the meantime, we wish her all the best and good luck with the rest of her studies!

Katie McInally's turbidity cell

Hamish visits RIKEN

On Friday 28 July, Hamish visited his collaborators Hengbo Cui and Takao Tsumuraya at the Condensed Molecular Materials Laboratory of Reizo Kato at RIKEN in Wako, Tokyo. They study the intriguing properties of various materials made from molecules that, when assembled in crystalline form and subjected to high pressure, exhibit transitions between various electronically insulating and conducting states.


The collaboration has involved examining the crystal structures of some of these compounds under pressure, which until now has remained undetermined except by computational methods. Hamish presented various results from the synchrotron experiment performed earlier this year, followed by discussions about how the structures link to the materials’ properties.


We’re looking forward to writing some of these results up in the near future… watch this space!