by Chris Woodford. Last updated: July 14, 2014.
You've probably used piezoelectricity (pronounced "pee-ay-zo-electricity") quite a few times today. If you've got a quartz watch, piezoelectricity is what helps it keep regular time. If you've been writing a letter or an essay on your computer with the help of voice recognition software, the microphone you spoke into probably used piezoelectricity to turn the sound energy in your voice into electrical signals your computer could interpret. If you're a bit of an audiophile and like listening to music on vinyl, your gramophone would have been using piezoelectricity to "read" the sounds from your LP records. Piezoelectricity (literally, "pressing electricity") is much simpler than it sounds: it just means using crystals to convert mechanical energy into electricity or vice-versa. Let's take a closer look at how it works and why it's so useful!
Photo: A piezoelectric actuator used by NASA for various kinds of testing. Photo by courtesy of NASA Langley Research Center (NASA-LaRC).
What is piezoelectricity?
Squeeze certain crystals (such as quartz) and you can make electricity flow through them. The reverse is usually true as well: if you pass electricity through the same crystals, they "squeeze themselves" by vibrating back and forth. That's pretty much piezoelectricity in a nutshell but, for the sake of science, let's have a formal definition:
Piezoelectricity (also called the piezoelectric effect) is the appearance of an electrical potential (a voltage, in other words) across the sides of a crystal when you subject it to mechanical stress (by squeezing it).
In practice, the crystal becomes a kind of tiny battery with a positive charge on one face and a negative charge on the opposite face; current flows if we connect the two faces together to make a circuit. In the reverse piezoelectric effect, a crystal becomes mechanically stressed (deformed in shape) when a voltage is applied across its opposite faces.
What causes piezoelectricity?
Think of a crystal and you probably picture balls (atoms) mounted on bars (the bonds that hold them together), a bit like a climbing frame. Now, by crystals, scientists don't necessarily mean intriguing bits of rock you find in gift shops: a crystal is the scientific name for any solid whose atoms or molecules are arranged in a very orderly way based on endless repetitions of the same basic atomic building block (called the unit cell). So a lump of iron is just as much of a crystal as a piece of quartz. In a crystal, what we have is actually less like a climbing frame (which doesn't necessarily have an orderly, repeating structure) and more like three-dimensional, patterned wallpaper.
Artwork: What scientists mean by a crystal: the regular, repeating arrangement of atoms in a solid. The atoms are essentially fixed in place but can vibrate slightly.
In most crystals (such as metals), the unit cell (the basic repeating unit) is symmetrical; in piezoelectric crystals, it isn't. Normally, piezoelectric crystals are electrically neutral: the atoms inside them may not be symmetrically arranged, but their electrical charges are perfectly balanced: a positive charge in one place cancels out a negative charge nearby. However, if you squeeze or stretch a piezoelectric crystal, you deform the structure, pushing some of the atoms closer together or further apart, upsetting the balance of positive and negative, and causing net electrical charges to appear. This effect carries through the whole structure so net positive and negative charges appear on opposite, outer faces of the crystal.
The reverse-piezoelectric effect occurs in the opposite way. Put a voltage across a piezoelectric crystal and you're subjecting the atoms inside it to "electrical pressure." They have to move to rebalance themselves—and that's what causes piezoelectric crystals to deform (slightly change shape) when you put a voltage across them.