Crystal Mystery Solved

CrystalThe same, inexpensive stuff gardeners use to fertilize their flower beds might one day boost the power of personal computers, scientists now say.

Researchers have figured out the crystal structure of ammonium dihydrogen phosphate (ADP), a mystery that persisted since the chemical’s discovery in 1938. They said their findings could lead to creating better computer memory, lasers and fiber optics from the unusual chemical.

“It was observed to have some unusual electrical properties that weren’t fully understood,” Naresh S. Dalal, a chemist at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Fla., said of the chemical. By modeling ADP’s crystal structure with a supercomputer, Dalal and his team said they found the keys to its electrical properties.

ADP is a ferroelectric material, Dalal said, which means it can hold an electric charge for a very long time. But the researchers found that the substance also displays a very different property: anti-ferroelectricity, which holds an electric charge but in an opposite state. The two different states could function as 1s and 0s used in the basic computer language, meaning ADP might find its way into devices like memory cards found in digital cameras, for example.

“This (discovery) allows us to further understand how to design new materials with both ferroelectric and anti-ferroelectric properties,” Dalal said. “Doing so could open new doors for computer memory technology—and possibly play a role in the development of quantum computers.”

Dalal and his team’s work is detailed in the journal Physical Review Letters.

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