The word piezoelectricity means electricity resulting from pressure. It is derived from the Greek piezo or piezein, which means to squeeze or press, and electric or electron, which stands for amber – an ancient source of electric charge. Piezoelectricity is the direct result of the piezoelectric effect.

The piezoelectric effect is understood as the linear electromechanical interaction between the mechanical and the electrical state in crystalline materials with no inversion symmetry.The piezoelectric effect is a reversible process in that materials exhibiting the direct piezoelectric effect (the internal generation of electrical charge resulting from an applied mechanical force) also exhibit the reverse piezoelectric effect (the internal generation of a mechanical force resulting from an applied electrical field). For example, lead zirconate titanate crystals will generate measurable piezoelectricity when their static structure is deformed by about 0.1% of the original dimension. Conversely, lead zirconate titanate crystals will change about 0.1% of their static dimension when an external electric field is applied to the material.

Piezoelectricity is found in useful applications such as the production and detection of sound, generation of high voltages, electronic frequency generation, microbalances, and ultra fine focusing of optical assemblies. It is also the basis of a number of scientific instrumental techniques with atomic resolution, the scanning probe microscopies such as STM, AFM, MTA, SNOM, etc., and everyday uses such as acting as the ignition source for cigarette lighters and push-start propane barbecues.

Discovery and early research
The pyroelectric effect, where a material generates an electric potential in response to a temperature change, was studied by Carl Linnaeus and Franz Aepinus in the mid-18th century. Drawing on this knowledge, both René Just Haüy and Antoine César Becquerel posited a relationship between mechanical stress and electric charge; however, experiments by both proved inconclusive.
The first demonstration of the direct piezoelectric effect was in 1880 by the brothers Pierre Curie and Jacques Curie. They combined their knowledge of pyroelectricity with their understanding of the underlying crystal structures that gave rise to pyroelectricity to predict crystal behavior, and demonstrated the effect using crystals of tourmaline, quartz, topaz, cane sugar, and Rochelle salt (sodium potassium tartrate tetrahydrate). Quartz and Rochelle salt exhibited the most piezoelectricity.

World War I and post-war
The first practical application for piezoelectric devices was sonar, first developed during World War I. In France in 1917, Paul Langevin 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.

World War II and post-war
During World War II, independent research groups in the United States, Russia, and Japan discovered a new class of man-made materials, called ferroelectrics, which exhibited piezoelectric constants many times higher than natural materials. This led to intense research to develop barium titanate and later lead zirconate titanate materials with specific properties for particular applications.
One significant example of the use of piezoelectric crystals was developed by Bell Telephone Laboratories. Following World War I, Frederick R. Lack, working in radio telephony in the engineering department, developed the “AT cut” crystal, a crystal that operated through a wide range of temperatures. Lack's crystal didn't need the heavy accessories previous crystal used, facilitating its use on aircraft. This development allowed Allied air forces to engage in coordinated mass attacks through the use of aviation radio.

Major Japanese piezoelectric developments include new designs of piezoceramic filters for radios and televisions, piezo buzzers and audio transducers that can connect directly to 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 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.

High voltage and power sources
Direct piezoelectricity of some substances like quartz, as mentioned above, can generate potential differences of thousands of volts.

  • piezoelectric lighter

    The best-known application is the electric cigarette lighter: pressing the button causes a spring-loaded hammer to hit a piezoelectric crystal, producing a sufficiently high voltage electric current that flows across a small spark gap, thus heating and igniting the gas. The portable sparkers used to light gas grills or stoves work the same way, and many types of gas burners now have built-in piezo-based ignition systems.

  • A similar idea is being researched by DARPA in the United States in a project called Energy Harvesting, which includes an attempt to power battlefield equipment by piezoelectric generators embedded in soldiers' boots. However, these energy harvesting sources by association have an impact on the body. DARPA's effort to harness 1-2 watts from continuous shoe impact while walking were abandoned due to the impracticality and the discomfort from the additional energy expended by a person wearing the shoes. Other energy harvesting ideas include harvesting the energy from human movements in train stations or other public places and converting a dance floor to generate electricity.
  • 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. These devices can be used in DC-AC inverters to drive cold cathode fluorescent lamps. Piezo transformers are some of the most compact high voltage sources.
The principle of operation of a piezoelectric sensor is that a physical dimension, transformed into a force, acts on two opposing faces of the sensing element. Depending on the design of a sensor, different "modes" to load the piezoelectric element can be used: longitudinal, transversal and shear.
Detection of pressure variations in the form of sound is the most common sensor application, e.g. piezoelectric microphones (sound waves bend the piezoelectric material, creating a changing voltage) and piezoelectric pickups for Acoustic-electric guitars. A piezo sensor attached to the body of an instrument is known as a contact microphone.
Piezoelectric sensors especially are used with high frequency sound in ultrasonic transducers for medical imaging and also industrial nondestructive testing (NDT).
For many sensing techniques, the sensor can act as both a sensor and an actuator – often the term transducer is preferred when the device acts in this dual capacity, but most piezo devices have this property of reversibility whether it is used or not. Ultrasonic transducers, for example, can inject ultrasound waves into the body, receive the returned wave, and convert it to an electrical signal (a voltage). Most medical ultrasound transducers are piezoelectric.
In addition to those mentioned above, various sensor applications include:
  • Piezoelectric elements are also used in the detection and generation of sonar waves.
  • Power monitoring in high power applications (e.g. medical treatment, sonochemistry and industrial processing).
  • Piezoelectric microbalances are used as very sensitive chemical and biological sensors.
  • Piezos are sometimes used in strain gauges.
  • Piezoelectric transducers are used in electronic drum pads to detect the impact of the drummer's sticks.
  • Automotive engine management systems use piezoelectric transducers to detect detonation by sampling the vibrations of the engine block and also to detect the precise moment of fuel injection (needle lift sensors).
  • Ultrasonic piezo sensors are used in the detection of acoustic emissions in acoustic emission testing.
  • Crystal earpieces are sometimes used in old or low power radios.

As very high electric fields 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 — thus their use in actuators. Multilayer ceramics, using layers thinner than 100 micrometres, allow reaching high electric fields with voltage lower than 150 V. These ceramics are used within two kinds of actuators: direct piezo actuators and Amplified Piezoelectric Actuators. While direct actuator's stroke is generally lower than 100 micrometres, amplified piezo actuators can reach millimeter strokes.

  • Quartz watch: As its name implies, a quartz watch must contain quartz. Quartz is made up of the two elements silicon and oxygen, its chemical composition is silicon-dioxide, which is the chemical composition of ordinary sand that we often see. But there is a fundamental difference between quartz and sand: quartz is a crystal in which atoms are orderly arranged. In contrast, atoms in sand are not tidily arranged and sand contains many impurities. Quartz crystal is a piezoelectric material, thus its surface will carry a voltage when it is under pressure. On the other hand, if a voltage is applied to its surface, the crystal will be slightly deformed. What happens when an alternating current is applied to a piezoelectric material? since the direction of the voltage is changing, the shape of the material will also change periodically, in other words, the material vibrates. Moreover, the vibration is very stable and is almost independent of temperature. By using electronic techniques, the vibration signals due to the voltage can be amplified to drive the clock hands; this is the basic mechanism of a quartz watch. Interestingly, we can deduce the mechanism of a watch from the mode of motion of its second hand. If the second hand on a watch flops second by second, it should be a quartz watch. On the contrary, the second hand of a mechanical watch moves continuously, and such a watch may probably have a spring. Compared with a mechanical watch, a quartz watch is less affected by gravity and hence it is usually more accurate. Moreover, the quartz crystal is chemically very stable, its composition would not be easily altered by the environment, thus it has a wide range of applications in industry.

  • Loudspeakers: Voltage is converted to mechanical movement of a piezoelectric polymer film.
  • Piezoelectric motors: piezoelectric elements apply a directional force to an axle, causing it to rotate. Due to the extremely small distances involved, the piezo motor is viewed as a high-precision replacement for the stepper motor.
  • 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 scatters light off of sound waves in a crystal, generated by piezoelectric elements. This is useful for fine-tuning a laser's frequency.
  • Atomic force microscopes and scanning tunneling microscopes employ converse piezoelectricity to keep the sensing needle close to the probe.
  • Inkjet printers: On many inkjet printers, piezoelectric crystals are used to drive the ejection of ink from the inkjet print head towards the paper.
  • Diesel engines: high-performance common rail diesel engines use piezoelectric fuel injectors, first developed by Robert Bosch GmbH, instead of the more common solenoid valve devices.
  • Active control of vibration using amplified actuators.
  • X-ray shutters.
  • XY stages for micro scanning used in infrared cameras.
  • Moving the patient precisely inside active CT and MRI scanners where the strong radiation or magnetism precludes electric motors.

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