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A History of the Piezoelectric Effect


1880 – The Discovery of Piezoelectricity


In 1880 brothers Pierre Curie and Jacques Curie were working as laboratory assistants at the Faculty of Sciences of Paris. They discovered that applying pressure to crystals such as quartz, tourmaline and Rochelle salt generates electrical charges on the surface of these materials. This conversion of mechanical energy into electrical energy is called the direct piezoelectric effect. “Piezo” is derived from the Greek for “to press”.

pierre curie piezoelectricity discovery

The converse effect, that the application of an electrical field to these materials causes the internal generation of a mechanical strain, was predicted by Gabriel Lippman in 1881, via mathematical deduction from fundamental thermodynamic principles. This inverse piezoelectric effect was quickly demonstrated by the Curies via experimentation.


The discovery of piezoelectricity generated significant interest in the European scientific community, and piezoelectricity developed as a new field of research in the last quarter of the 19th century. This research culminated in Woldemar Voigt’s Lehrbuch der Kristallphysik (Textbook on Crystal Physics), published in 1910, which described the 20 natural crystal classes in which piezoelectric effects occur.

Woldermar VoigtDespite the scientific interest that followed the Curie’s discovery, it was some time before the first practical application of piezoelectric materials.

Sonar and Other Applications


The first practical application was sonar, and it was developed in France during World War I, by Paul Langevin and his coworkers. They built an ultrasonic submarine detector consisting of a transducer, made of thin quartz crystal glued between two steel plates, and a hydrophone. The transducer emitted a high-frequency pulse into the water, while the hydrophone detected the returned echo. By measuring the time it took to hear the echo, it was possible to calculate depth.

The detector’s design was not perfected until after the war. Nevertheless, in industrial nations the project’s success led to intense interest in piezoelectric devices. As a result, many new applications for piezoelectric crystals were developed in the years between World War I and World War II, such as microphones, accelerometers, phonograph pick-ups and signal filters.

Ultrasonic transducers were also further developed and used to measure the elasticity and viscosity of materials. This led to huge advances in materials research. In addition, previously invisible flaws in cast metal and stone objects became detectable through the development of time-domain reflectometers, leading to improvements in structural safety.

World War II and Beyond

The piezoelectric effect of natural materials (such as quartz, tourmaline and Rochelle salt) is relatively small. Certain synthetic materials known as ferroelectrics exhibit piezoelectric constants many times higher than natural materials.

The ferroelectric ceramic material barium titanate (BaTiO3) was discovered independently by research groups in three countries during World War II (the United States, Japan and Russia). Lead zirconate titanate (PZT), which exhibits even greater sensitivity and has a higher operating temperature, was developed by physicists at the Tokyo Institute of Technology in 1952.

In the United States significant technical developments were made in the decades following World War II, but the market development for piezoelectric devices lagged behind this technical development. This can be attributed to a nature of secrecy that operated within the companies doing the development. This was likely partly because of the wartime beginnings of the field and also partly because of a belief that patents and secret processes would lead to high profits.

In contrast, in Japan manufacturers shared information, leading to technical challenges quickly being overcome and the creation of new markets. Materials research also led to the creation of new piezoceramic families that were free of patent restrictions. Developments by Japanese manufacturers included signal filters for the television and radio markets, as well as piezoceramic igniters.

The commercial success of Japanese companies attracted the attention of many other nations. As such, it is no surprise that companies continue to search out new piezoelectric product opportunities to this day.

W. G. Cady: The Father of Modern Piezoelectricity

American physicist and electrical engineer Dr. Walter Guyton Cady (1874–1974) was, during his lifetime, described as the “Father of Modern Piezoelectricity”.

Cady became a professor of physics at Wesleyan University (Connecticut) in 1902, but his work with piezoelectricity did not begin until 1917. Cady’s interest in submarine dete…

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How to simulate Piezoelectricity?

Piezoelectric devices can be simulated in 1D, 2D or 3D using the Finite Element Method and the appropriate multiphysic solvers. Research have demonstrated that the best method to obtain accurate solution of such system is to use Time Response Dynamic Analysis FEA Simulation and Nonlinear Explicit/Implicit Coupled Algorithms. OnScale is the only software on the market truly efficient to perform this kind of advanced analysis.

Finite Element Method is the best way to simulate transducers
The finite element method reduces the electromechanical partial differential equations (PDEs) over the model domain to a system of ordinary differential equations (ODEs) in time that can be solved.
What is the system of ordinary differential equations (ODEs) which is solved?
The electromechanical finite element equations are derived from the piezoelectricity constitutive relations and the equations of mechanical and electrical equilibrium
Frequency domain or Time domain?
Frequency Domain poses the assumption of harmonic behavior, whereas Time-domain solutions assume general temporal evolution of the system, requiring step-by-step integration of the equations.
Implicit or an Explicit integration Scheme?
OnScale uses a mixed explicit/implicit algorithm which performs a direct time integration of the 2D or 3D electromechanical equations. This special method increases the speed at which such 2D or 3D piezoelectric can be calculated while maintaining a very good level of results accuracy.

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Useful Video Tutorials and Webinars

In this section, you will find the best tutorials and webinars to help you to start to simulate right away piezoelectric systems with OnScale:

Useful links

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