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What is Piezoelectricity?


Let me provide you with a very simple definition first to get things clear.

Certain materials tend to accumulate electric charges when a mechanical stress is applied to them. The piezoelectric effect is an effect that simply describes the fact that a pressure applied to a piezoelectric material will generate a voltage.

Now, how does it work more in details? And where does it come from exactly?

Piezoelectricity and the piezoelectric effect

The word piezoelectricity comes from the Greek word piezein, which means squeeze or press and electron, which means “amber” and is an ancient source of electric charge.

The French physicists Jacques and Pierre Curie discovered in 1880 that electric charges could accumulate in certain solid materials in response to an applied mechanical stress.

Piezoelectric materials allow conversion of energy from the mechanical domain to the electrical domain and vice versa.  They can be used to create various sensors or actuators: applied periodic electrical signal can result in the generation of ultrasonic waves for imaging purposes.

The piezoelectric materials are usually grouped into three categories:

  1. 1-Naturally occurring (single) crystal substrates,
  2. 2- Ceramics with perovskite structure
  3. 3- Polymer films.

For example, some materials which show a more pronounced piezoelectric effect are:

  • Crystals (Quartz, Potassium Nibonate …)
  • Certain Ceramics (Lead Zirconate Titanate or PZT, Barium Titanate, …)
  • Biological material (Bone,…)
  • DNA and various proteins

Piezoceramic PZT Discs

What is interesting is that the piezoelectric effect is mostly linear and reversible.

For example, take one of the most used piezoelectric materials, the lead zirconate titanate (or PZT) crystals will generate measurable piezoelectricity when their static structure is deformed by about 0.1% of the original dimension. Conversely, those same crystals will change about 0.1% of their static dimension when an external electric field is applied to the material.

The inverse piezoelectric effect is very useful because it is implemented in many transducers to produce ultrasonic sound waves.

Now let’s have a closer look at where it comes from

What is the difference between a non-piezoelectric material and a piezoelectric material?

First, let’s look at a non-piezoelectric material: the overall charge center of positive and negative ions in the unit cell coincide, and even with applied deformation, these cancel out, and no overall polarisation appears.

Note that even if we consider elongation in the horizontal direction due to the compression, the charges still cancel out.

In crystalline piezoelectric materials, the unique distribution of charges gives rise to a dipole moment when the material is deformed.

Consider the example 2D lattice as shown below. A unit cell is shown outlined with dashed lines. Without any external stress, the centroid of positive and negative charges coincides and marked by a black dot.

When the material is compressed (right figure), the distance between the atoms remains the same, which is only possible by expanding the material horizontally. This in turn moves the positive and negative charges denoted by a star (*) apart, and their centroid no longer coincide, but are shown by blue and red dots, creating an electric dipole.

Let’s see a bit more visually how this all work in the next part

How does piezoelectricity appear under pressure in ceramic or crystal materials?

Materials (like everything in the world) are composed of molecules which are arranged in a certain way.

When the material is in a free state (without any pressure), those molecules will be arranged in a certain way which corresponds to an equilibrium of the mater and in which the charges of the molecules cancels itself if we look at the whole.

When a pressure is applied however, those molecules change position and align into a dipolar state in which the global charge isn’t null anymore and 2 sides of the materials become polarized.

But why charge is changing for piezoelectric materials and not for any other material?

Like we mentioned in the previous part, it is because of the special arrangement of the piezoelectric material crystals in a hexagonal configuration.

If you look at the atoms that compose a PZT Material crystal for example, you will notice that they are arranged like this:

What happens when the piezoelectric crystal is compressed?

Here is a very good animation showing how the center of positive charges moves when a pressure is applied on both sides of a piezoelectric crystal:

To understand how this work, we must look at the center of the positive and negative charges.

When you compress the crystal, the 2 positive charges on the top move horizontally and not vertically, which causes the center of positive charge to change position upward.

compress piezoelectric crystal center charge moves

Same for the negative charges.

The average of the 3 negative charges moves downward.

understanding piezoelectric effect

In an uncompressed crystal, the positive charges and negative charges just cancel each other and the resultant charge is null.

When you compress the crystal in a certain orientation, you are slightly shifting the average position of the positive charges in one direction and the average of the negative charges in the other direction.

This create an accumulation of positive charges on one face and an accumulation of negative charges on the other face.

If you then wire up those faces, the positively charges face will start to pull electrons negatively charged towards it through the wire and the negatively charged face will repel electrons.

understand piezoelectric effect 3 voltage generated

That’s how a voltage is generated from the piezoelectric effect!

Note: it’s Important to see the piezoelectric phenomenon as a dynamic process: even if the material is kept compressed, it cannot be used as a ‘battery’, the removed charges will not regenerate. New surface charges appear either when further compressing or expanding the material.

Now, It’s cool to know how it work… but is there a way to “ experiment” a bit with all of that to gain a practical understand of how the piezoelectric effect work??

Sure! Simulation can do that ?

How to simulate the Piezoelectric effect?

With OnScale, you can easily create a model and simulate the piezoelectric effect as well as the inverse piezoelectric effect.

OnScale calculates Electric Voltage, Mechanical deformation and stresses and acoustic pressure in one and unique model and in a fully coupled way.

piezoelectric effect simulation onscale

Tutorial: Simulating a 3D PZT Disc in OnScale

We made also a video to show you all the simulation process step by step

In this video, you will learn:

  • What is a PZT Disc
  • What is PZT Material
  • How is PZT Material Used
  • How to Simulate a PZT Disc in 3D
  • Model Definition
  • Results we can get
  • 3D PZT Disc Step-by-step Tutorial in OnScale

Download the model

Here’s the full model from the video:

Download the 3D PZT Disc OnScale Model

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…

Read the article

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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