How Piezoelectricity Works to Make Crystals Conduct Electric Current

Edwin Robledo Edwin Robledo February 12, 2023

6 min read

This post is also available in: Français (French) Italiano (Italian) Deutsch (German)

Learn how piezoelectricity produces an electric charge by applying mechanical stress to a piezoelectric material.

Piezo what? Piezoelectricity sounds like a lot to take in, but it’s simple to understand. The word piezoelectric originates from the Greek word piezein, which literally means to squeeze or press. Instead of squeezing grapes to make wine, we’re squeezing crystals to make an electric current! Piezoelectricity is in a ton of everyday electronic devices, from quartz watches to speakers and microphones.

In a nutshell, piezoelectricity is the process of using crystals to convert mechanical energy into electrical energy or vice versa.

piezoelectricity-crystals

Regular crystals are defined by their organized and repeating structure of atoms that are held together by bonds, called a unit cell. Most crystals, such as iron, have a symmetrical unit cell. This makes them useless for piezoelectric purposes.

There are other crystals that get lumped together as piezoelectric materials. The structure in these crystals isn’t symmetrical, but they still exist in an electrically neutral balance. However, if you apply mechanical pressure to a piezoelectric crystal, the structure deforms, atoms push around, and you have a crystal that conducts an electrical current. If you take the same piezoelectric crystal and apply an electric current to it, the crystal will expand and contract, converting electrical energy into mechanical energy.

Types of piezoelectric materials

There are a variety of piezoelectric materials that can conduct an electric current, both man-made and natural. The most well-known, and the first piezoelectric material used in electronic devices is the quartz crystal. Other naturally occurring piezoelectric materials include cane sugar, Rochelle salt, topaz, tourmaline, and even bone.

As piezoelectric technology started to take off after World War I, we began developing man-made materials to rival the performance of quartz. Man-made piezoelectric materials include:

piezoelectricity-graphic

How piezoelectricity works

We have specific materials suited for piezoelectricity applications, but how exactly does the process work? With the Piezoelectric Effect. The most unique trait of this effect is that it works two ways. You can apply mechanical or electrical energy to the same piezoelectric material and get the opposite result.

Applying mechanical energy to a crystal is a direct piezoelectric effect and works like this:

  1. A piezoelectric crystal is placed between two metal plates. At this point, the material is in perfect balance and does not conduct an electric current.
  2. Mechanical pressure is then applied to the material by the metal plates, which forces the electric charges within the crystal out of balance. Excess negative and positive charges appear on opposite sides of the crystal face.
  3. The metal plate collects these charges, which can be used to produce a voltage and send an electrical current through a circuit.

That’s it, a simple application of mechanical pressure, the squeezing of a crystal, and suddenly you have an electric current. You can also do the opposite, applying an electrical signal to a material as an inverse piezoelectric effect. It works like this:

  1. In the same situation as the example above, we have a piezoelectric crystal between two metal plates. The crystal’s structure is in perfect balance.
  2. Electrical energy is then applied to the crystal, which shrinks and expands the crystal’s structure.
  3. As the crystal’s structure expands and contracts, it converts the received electrical energy and releases mechanical energy in the form of a sound wave.

The inverse piezoelectric effect is used in a variety of applications. Take a speaker, for example, which applies a voltage to a piezoelectric ceramic, causing the material to vibrate the air as sound waves.

The discovery of piezoelectricity

Piezoelectricity was first discovered in 1880 by two brothers and French scientists, Jacques and Pierre Curie. While experimenting with various crystals, they discovered that applying mechanical pressure to specific crystals like quartz released an electrical charge. They called this the piezoelectric effect.

The next 30 years saw Piezoelectricity reserved largely for laboratory experiments and further refinement. In World War I, piezoelectricity was used for practical applications in sonar. Sonar works by connecting a voltage to a piezoelectric transmitter. This is the inverse piezoelectric effect in action, which converts electrical energy into mechanical sound waves.

The sound waves travel through the water until they hit an object. They then return back to a source receiver. This receiver uses the direct piezoelectric effect to convert sound waves into an electrical voltage, which a signal-processing device can then process. Using the time between when the signal left and when it returned, an object’s distance can easily be calculated underwater.

With sonar a success, piezoelectricity gained the eager eyes of the military. World War II advanced the technology even further as researchers from the United States, Russia, and Japan worked to craft new man-made piezoelectric materials called ferroelectrics. This research led to two man-made materials used alongside natural quartz crystal, barium titanate, and lead zirconate titanate.

Piezoelectricity Today

In today’s world of electronics, piezoelectricity is used everywhere. Asking Google for directions to a new restaurant uses piezoelectricity in the microphone. There’s even a subway in Tokyo that uses the power of human footsteps to power piezoelectric structures in the ground. You’ll also find piezoelectricity being used in these electronic applications:

Actuators

Actuators use piezoelectricity to power devices like knitting and braille machinery, video cameras, and smartphones. In this system, a metal plate and an actuator device sandwich together a piezoelectric material. Voltage is then applied to the piezoelectric material, which expands and contracts it. This movement causes the actuator to move as well.

Speakers & buzzers

Speakers use piezoelectricity to power devices like alarm clocks and other small mechanical devices that require high-quality audio capabilities. These systems take advantage of the inverse piezoelectric effect by converting an audio voltage signal into mechanical energy as sound waves.

Drivers

Drivers convert a low-voltage battery into a higher voltage which can then be used to drive a piezo device. This amplification process begins with an oscillator that outputs smaller sine waves. These sine waves are then amplified with a piezo amplifier.

Sensors

Sensors are used in various applications, such as microphones, amplified guitars, and medical imaging equipment. A piezoelectric microphone is used in these devices to detect pressure variations in sound waves, which can then be converted to an electrical signal for processing.

Power

One of the simplest applications for piezoelectricity is the electric cigarette lighter. Pressing the button of the lighter releases a spring-loaded hammer into a piezoelectric crystal. This produces an electrical current that crosses a spark gap to heat and ignite gas. This same piezoelectric power system is used in larger gas burners and oven ranges.

Motors

Piezoelectric crystals are perfect for applications that require precise accuracy, such as the movement of a motor. In these devices, the piezoelectric material receives an electric signal, which is then converted into mechanical energy to force a ceramic plate to move.

Piezoelectricity and the future

What does the future hold for piezoelectricity? The possibilities abound. One popular idea inventors are throwing around is using piezoelectricity for energy harvesting. Imagine having piezoelectric devices in your smartphone that could be activated from the simple movement of your body to keep them charged.

Thinking a bit bigger, you could also embed a piezoelectric system underneath highway pavement that the wheels of traveling cars can activate. This energy could then be used to light stoplights and other nearby devices. Couple that with a road filled with electric cars, and you’d find yourself in a net positive energy situation.

Want to help move piezoelectricity forward into the future? Get started with Fusion 360 Electronics today.

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