Piezoelectricity is the ability of certain crystals to produce a voltage when subjected to mechanical stress. The word is derived from the Greek piezein, which means to squeeze or press. The effect is reversible; piezoelectric crystals, subject to an externally applied voltage, can change shape by a small amount. The effect is of the order of nanometres, but nevertheless finds useful applications such as the production and detection of sound, generation of high voltages, electronic frequency generation, and ultrafine focusing of optical assemblies.
In a piezoelectric crystal, the positive and negative electrical charges are separated, but symmetrically distributed, so that the crystal overall is electrically neutral.
When a stress is applied, this symmetry is disturbed, and the charge asymmetry generates a voltage. A 1 cm cube of quartz with 500 lbf (2 kN) of correctly applied force upon it, can produce 12,500 V of electricity.
Piezoelectric materials also show the opposite effect, called converse piezoelectricity, where application of an electrical field creates mechanical stress (distortion) in the crystal. Because the charges inside the crystal are separated, the applied voltage affects different points within the crystal differently, resulting in the distortion.
The bending forces generated by converse piezoelectricity are extremely high, of the order of tens of millions of pounds (tens of meganewtons), and usually cannot be constrained. The only reason the force is usually not noticed is because it causes a displacement of the order of one billionth of an inch (a few nanometres).
A related property known as pyroelectricity, the ability of certain mineral crystals to generate electrical charge when heated, was known of as early as the 18th century, and was named by David Brewster in 1824. In 1880, the brothers Pierre Curie and Jacques Curie predicted and demonstrated piezoelectricity using tinfoil, glue, wire, magnets, and a jeweler's saw. They showed that crystals of tourmaline, quartz, topaz, cane sugar, and Rochelle salt (sodium potassium tartrate tetrahydrate) generate electrical polarization from mechanical stress. Quartz and Rochelle salt exhibited the most piezoelectricity. Twenty natural crystal classes exhibit direct piezoelectricity.
Converse piezoelectricity was mathematically deduced from fundamental thermodynamic principles by Lippmann in 1881. The Curies immediately confirmed the existence of the "converse effect," and went on to obtain quantitative proof of the complete reversibility of electro-elasto-mechanical deformations in piezoelectric crystals.
The first practical application for piezoelectric devices was sonar, first developed during World War I. In France in 1917, Paul Langevin (whose development now bears his name) and his coworkers developed an ultrasonic submarine detector. The detector consisted of a transducer, made of thin quartz crystals carefully glued between two steel plates, and a hydrophone to detect the returned echo. By emitting a high-frequency chirp from the transducer, and measuring the amount of time it takes to hear an echo from the sound waves bouncing off an object, one can calculate the distance to that object.
The use of piezoelectricity in sonar, and the success of that project, created intense development interest in piezoelectric devices. Over the next few decades, new piezoelectric materials and new applications for those materials were explored and developed.
Development of piezoelectric devices and materials in the United States was kept within the companies doing the development, mostly due to the wartime beginnings of the field, and in the interests of securing profitable patents. New materials were the first to be developed — quartz crystals were the first commercially exploited piezoelectric material, but scientists searched for higher-performance materials.
Piezoelectric devices found homes in many fields. Ceramic phonograph cartridges simplified player design, were cheap and accurate, and made record players cheaper to maintain and easier to build. Ceramic electret microphones could be made small and sensitive. The development of the ultrasonic transducer allowed for easy measurement of viscosity and elasticity in fluids and solids, resulting in huge advances in materials research. Ultrasonic time-domain reflectometers (which send an ultrasonic pulse through a material and measure reflections from discontinuities) could find flaws inside cast metal and stone objects, improving structural safety. However, despite the advances in materials and the maturation of manufacturing processes, the United States market had not grown as quickly. Without many new applications, the growth of the United States' piezoelectric industry suffered.
In contrast, Japanese manufacturers shared their information, quickly overcoming technical and manufacturing challenges and creating new markets. Japanese efforts in materials research created piezoceramic materials competitive to the U.S. materials, but free of expensive patent restrictions. Major Japanese piezoelectric developments include new designs of piezoceramic filters, used in radios and televisions, piezo buzzers and audio transducers that could be connected directly into electronic circuits, and the piezoelectric igniter which generates sparks for small engine ignition systems (and gas-grill lighters) by compressing a ceramic disc. Ultrasonic transducers that could transmit sound waves through air had existed for quite some time, but first saw major commercial use in early television remote controls. These transducers now are mounted on several car models as an echolocation device, helping the driver determine the distance from the rear of the car to any objects that may be in its path.
In addition to the materials listed above, many other materials exhibit the effect, including quartz analogue crystals like berlinite (AlPO4) and gallium orthophosphate (GaPO4), ceramics with perovskite or tungsten-bronze structures (BaTiO3, KNbO3, LiNbO3, LiTaO3, BiFeO3, NaxWO3, Ba2NaNb5O5, Pb2KNb5O15). Polymer materials like rubber, wool, hair, wood fiber, and silk exhibit piezoelectricity to some extent. The polymer polyvinylidene fluoride, (-CH2-CF2-)n, exhibits piezoelectricity several times larger than quartz. Bone exhibits some piezoelectric properties: it has been hypothesized that this is part of the mechanism of bone remodelling in response to stress.
Piezoelectric crystals are used in numerous ways:
Direct piezoelectricity of some substances like quartz, as mentioned above, can generate thousands of volts (known as high-voltage differentials).
- Probably the best-known application is the electric cigarette lighter: pressing the button squeezes an piezoelectric crystal, and the high voltage thus produced ignites the gas as the current jumps over a small spark gap. The portable electrical sparkers used to light gas grills or stoves work the same way.
- A similar idea is being researched by DARPA in the USA in a project called Energy Harvesting, which includes an attempt to power battlefield equipment by piezoelectric generators embedded in soldiers' boots.
- A piezoelectric transformer is a type of AC voltage multiplier. Unlike a conventional transformer, which uses magnetic coupling between input and output, the piezoelectric transformer uses acoustic coupling. An input voltage is applied across a short length of a bar of piezoceramic material such as PZT, creating an alternating stress in the bar by the inverse piezoelectric effect and causing the whole bar to vibrate. The vibration frequency is chosen to be the resonant frequency of the block, typically in the 100 kilohertz to 1 megahertz range. A higher output voltage is then generated across another section of the bar by the piezoelectric effect. Step-up ratios of more than 1000:1 have been demonstrated. An extra feature of this transformer is that, by operating it above its resonant frequency, it can be made to appear as an inductive load, which is useful in circuits that require a controlled soft start. A detailed analysis can be found here.
- To detect sound, e.g. piezoelectric microphones (sound waves bend the piezoelectric material, creating a changing voltage) and piezoelectric pickups for electrically amplified guitars.
- Piezoelectric elements are used in electronic drum pads to detect the impact of the drummer's sticks.
As very high voltages correspond to only tiny changes in the width of the crystal, this width can be changed with better-than-micrometer precision, making piezo crystals the most important tool for positioning objects with extreme accuracy.
Loudspeaker: Voltages are converted to mechanical movement of a piezoelectric polymer film.
- Piezoelectric elements can be used in laser mirror alignment, where their ability to move a large mass (the mirror mount) over microscopic distances is exploited to electronically align some laser mirrors. By precisely controlling the distance between mirrors, the laser electronics can accurately maintain optical conditions inside the laser cavity to optimize the beam output.
- A related application is the acousto-optic modulator , a device that vibrates a mirror to give the light reflected off it a Doppler shift. This is useful for fine-tuning a laser's frequency.
Quartz clocks employ a tuning fork made from quartz that uses a combination of both direct and converse piezoelectricity to generate a regularly timed series of electrical pulses that is used to mark time. The quartz crystal (like any elastic material) has a precisely defined natural frequency (caused by its shape and size) at which it prefers to oscillate, and this is used to stabilize the frequency of a periodic voltage applied to the crystal.
Types of piezoelectric motor include the well-known travelling-wave motor used for auto-focus in reflex cameras, inchworm motors for linear motion, and rectangular four-quadrant motors with high power density (2.5 watt/cm³) and speed ranging from 10 nm/s to 800 mm/s. All these motors work on the same principle. Driven by dual orthogonal vibration modes with a phase shift of 90°, the contact point between two surfaces vibrates in an elliptical path, producing a frictional force between the surfaces. Usually, one surface is fixed causing the other to move. In most piezoelectric motors the piezoelectric crystal is excited by a sine wave signal at the resonant frequency of the motor. Using the resonance effect, a much lower voltage can be used to produce a high vibration amplitude.