A University of Nebraska-Lincoln research team has discovered a more efficient method of data storage that offers great promise for future technology.

UNL physicist Alexei Gruverman, who led the team, does research on electronic materials at the nanoscale. Central to his research is the scanning probe microscopy technique, which involves exerting mechanical, electrical or magnetic influence on an object using a tiny physical probe and measuring the object's response.

Researchers can electrically charge the probe and use its tip -- the radius measures about 10 nanometers -- to scan and electrically change ferroelectric materials. By applying an electric potential to the probe, a tiny bit of electrical information can be stored in the ferroelectric material. This principle is central to data storage, like in hard disk drives.

To date, researchers have relied on the electrical voltage to store information. However, Gruverman's team found the same bit could be written simply by pressing harder against the ferroelectric material's surface.

That finding makes the research team the first to demonstrate that mechanical force can be used to change an area's polarization. The finding is groundbreaking because it opens up a new way to store data significantly more densely than has previously been available.

While Gruverman is hesitant to say such a finding could pave the way to a new generation of data storage devices such as computers and cellphones, it does establish the scientific basis that makes it possible, he said.

The team's findings were published April 5 in the journal Science and includes Gruverman's graduate student, Haidong Lu, as a lead author. Other collaborators included Spanish researchers led by Gustau Catalan and a team led by Chang-Beom Eom from the University of Wisconsin.

At the time of their discovery, Gruverman and other UNL researchers were engaged in a separate study supported in part by the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Basic Energy Sciences.