Scientists at the National Physical Laboratory have published details of plans for a new scanning vibrometer to correct decades of errors in the characterising of piezoelectric films. Their aim is to measure the tiny sub-nanometre changes of thickness seen in these films in response to charge whilst removing the influence of bending in the substrate that supports them that has affected the accuracy of previous metrology analysis.

Vibrometer measurement of an electroded PZT film. The line shows the displacement profile across the active electrode (diameter 0.7mm) at the centre of the image, showing a maximum displacement of 30pm

Their technique uses a scanning vibrometer that allows them to measure changes in thickness across the whole sample simultaneously. By taking a reference point the team can calculate the impact of the bending substrate, a value which is then eliminated from the overall analysis to give a more accurate measurement of the change in thickness.

“It’s not the whole story,” admits NPL’s Dr Mark Stewart, “but it’s a step forward and something of real interest to anyone working on the development or application of these films.”

Hopes for 10x faster computer processing boosted by new global research effort to measure nano-scale strain

  • The Nanostrain project will support the development of cheaper, more reliable and energy efficient technologies delivering 10 fold increases in chip processor speed to 30 GHz, faster internet connections and huge energy savings worldwide
  • The results will be made openly available to drive innovation in other technological sectors including ultra-high speed and resolution printing, chemical and optical sensors, electromagnetic telecommunications, automotive, power, oil & gas and medicine
  • The project is backed by national measurement institutes such as the National Physical Laboratory and the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt, with industry support from the likes of IBM and Polytec

Sept 2013: A new international research collaboration announced today will deliver highly accurate measurements of strain in materials at the nano-scale to drive innovation in next generation electronic devices. The European Metrology Research Programme’s Nanostrain project brings together public institutions from across Europe supported by global industry leaders including IBM.

A particular focus for the consortium is a class of materials (piezoelectrics) that change their shape in response to electric voltages. The project aims to advance commercial opportunities arising from controlled strain in nano-scale piezoelectrics including the development of the first Piezoelectric-Effect-Transistor (PET), a new digital switch with the potential to offer increased speed, reduced micro-chip size and lower power consumption.

Advances here would overcome a decade of stagnation in semiconductor transistor performance which has seen computational processing power fail to increase by more than a few percent since 2003.

However progress in these areas is dependent on the development of new and more accurate measurements and best practise to better understand strain at the nano-scale and how it can be exploited.

To address this ‘final piece of the jigsaw’ the European Metrology Research Programme’s three year Nanostrain project brings together several European national laboratories along with a consortium of collaborators including world class research instrument facilities at the ESRF and nine commercial companies spanning a wide range of applications.

The project will develop new tools for the characterisation of nano-strain under industrially relevant conditions of high stress, and electric fields. The results will then be openly available to manufacturers and designers to encourage innovation across a wide range of industries.


Prof Markys Cain, Nanostrain project lead at NPL said: “This is a completely unique collaboration, unparalleled in terms of its collective expertise in the areas of material science, metrology and the properties and performance of piezoelectric systems. It’s an exciting project to be involved in as it won’t be simply going over old ground or providing a minor improvement on what already exists. Currently there is no metrological framework or facilities for traceable measurement in this area. This is high risk, challenging work that will underpin a major step change in the performance of devices we use every day and bring highly influential new technologies to market in diverse sectors such as microelectronics, ICT, 3D printing and sensors industries.”

Dr. Burkhard Beckhoff at PTB said: “Europe is particularly well positioned to benefit from new electronic components such as transistors and memory devices based on nanoscale functional materials, with a strong technology-driven manufacturing sector and a vibrant community of innovative companies. Through Nanostrain we hope to establish the metrological and material science foundations in Europe from which our ICT, bio-medical, sensors and instrumentation sectors can innovate and lead the world in the future.”

Dr Glenn J. Martyna at IBM said: “Computer clock speeds have remained frozen since 2003, limiting not only innovation in new electronics, but also in global efforts to improve energy efficiency and reduce power consumption within the electronics sector as a whole. However with our latest calculations suggesting piezoelectronic transistors can operate at one-tenth of the voltage of today’s CMOS equivalent, consuming 100 times less power as they do so, we believe we are on the verge of a major breakthrough. The next steps include improving our understanding of how this technology could best work in practise, and that relies on a better understanding of how these nano-scale piezoelectric materials strain in order to optimise their commercial performance. We are excited to be part of the EMRP Nanostrain project because we believe this impressive collection of organisations and expertise can deliver this important final step towards long-awaited fast processing speeds.”

Full list of Nanostrain collaborators:

  • National Physical Laboratory (NPL), UK
  • Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB), Germany
  • Czech Metrology Institute (CMI), Czech Republic
  • BAM Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing, Germany
  • XMaS- the EPSRC funded Mid-Range Facility for Materials Science at the ESRF, France
  • European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF), France
  • Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), France
  • IBM
  • Neaspec
  • Global Foundries
  • Piezo Institute, Belgium
  • Istituto Nazionale di Ricerca Metrologica (INRIM), Italy
  • Polytec

This work is funded through the European Metrology Research Programme (EMRP) Project IND54 Nanostrain. The EMRP is jointly funded by the EMRP participating countries within EURAMET and the European Union.

For more information please contact – James Romero, 08456801866 /