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Piezoelectric Sensors

Piezoelectric Sensors

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Published by Pradyumna Padukone

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Published by: Pradyumna Padukone on Oct 15, 2010
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Over the past 50 years piezoelectric sensors haveproven to be a versatile tool for the measurement ofvarious processes. Today, they are used for thedetermination of pressure, acceleration, strain orforce in quality assurance, process control anddevelopment across many different industries.Piezoelectric sensors rely on the piezoelectriceffect, which was discovered by the Curie brothersin the late 19
century. While investigating anumber of naturally occurring materials such astourmaline and quartz, Pierre and Jacques Curierealized that these materials had the ability totransform energy of a mechanical input into anelectrical output. More specifically, when a pressure[piezo is the Greek word for pressure] is applied toa piezoelectric material, it causes a mechanicaldeformation and a displacement of charges. Thosecharges are highly proportional to the appliedpressure [Piezoelectricity].
Figure 1:
Piezoelectricity of quartz
A quartz (SiO 
 ) tetrahedron is shown. When a force is applied to the tetrahedron (or a macroscopic crystal element) a displacement of the cation charge towards the center of the anion charges occurs. Hence, the outer faces of such a piezoelectric element get charged under this pressure.
Many creatures use an interesting application ofpiezoelectricity. Bones act as force sensors. Onceloaded, bones produce charges proportional to theresulting internal torsion or displacement. Thosecharges stimulate and drive the build up of newbone material. This leads to the strengthening ofstructures where the internal displacements are thegreatest. With time, this allows weaker structures toincrease their strength and stability as material islaid down proportional to the forces affecting thebone.From the Curies’ initial discovery, it took until the1950‘s before the piezoelectric effect was used forindustrial sensing applications. Since then, theutilization of this measuring principle hasexperienced a constant growth and can nowadaysbe regarded as a mature technology with anoutstanding inherent reliability. It has beensuccessfully used in various critical applications asfor example in medical, aerospace and nuclearinstrumentation.
Piezoelectric Sensors Update 08/2005
2The rise of piezoelectric technology is directlyrelated to a set of inherent advantages. The highmodulus of elasticity of many piezoelectric materialsis comparable to that of many metals and goes upto 10
. Even though piezoelectric sensorsare electromechanical systems that react oncompression, the sensing elements show almostzero deflection. This is the reason why piezoelectricsensors are so rugged, have an extremely highnatural frequency and an excellent linearity over awide amplitude range. Additionally, piezoelectrictechnology is insensitive to electromagnetic fieldsand radiation, enabling measurements under harshconditions. Some materials used (especiallygalliumphosphate or tourmaline) have an extremestability over temperature enabling sensors to havea working range of 1000°C.
PrincipleStrainSensitivity(V/µ*)Threshold(µ*)Span tothresholdratio
Table 1:
Comparison of sensing principles
Comparison of different sensing principles according to Gautschi. Numbers give only a tendency for the general characteristics.
The single disadvantage of piezoelectric sensors isthat they cannot be used for true staticmeasurements. A static force will result in a fixedamount of charges on the piezoelectric material.Working with conventional electronics, not perfectinsulating materials, and reduction in internal sensorresistance will result in a constant loss of electrons,yielding an inaccurate signal. ElevatedAnyhow, it would be a misconception thatpiezoelectric sensors can only be used for very fastprocesses or at ambient conditions. In fact, thereare numerous applications that show quasi-staticmeasurements while there are other applicationsthat go to temperatures far beyond 500°C.
Depending on the way a piezoelectric material iscut, three main types of operations can bedistinguished 1. transversal 2. longitudinal 3. shear.
A gallium phosphate crystal is shown with typical sensor elements manufactured out of it. Depending on the design of a sensor different ”modes” to load the crystal can be used: transversal, longitudinal and shear (arrows indicate the direction where the load is applied). Charges are generated on both ”x- sides” of the element. The positive charges on the front side are accompanied by negative charges on the back.
Figure 2:
Gallium phosphate sensing elementstemperatures cause an additional drop in internalresistance; therefore, at higher temperatures, onlypiezoelectric materials can be used that maintain ahigh internal resistance.
Piezoelectric Sensors Update 08/2005
Transverse effect:
A force is applied along aneutral axis and the charges are generated alongthe d
direction. The amount of charge depends onthe geometrical dimensions of the respectivepiezoelectric element. When dimensions a, b, capply:C
= -d
x F
x b/awhere a is the dimension in line with the neutral axisand b is in line with the charge generating axis.
Longitudinal effect:
The amount of chargesproduced is strictly proportional to the applied forceand is independent of size and shape of thepiezoelectric element. Using several elements thatare mechanically in series and electrically in parallelis the only way to increase the charge output. Theresulting charge is:C
x F
x nwhered
11 =
piezoelectric coefficient [pC/N]Fx = applied Force in x-direction [N]n = number of elements
Shear effect:
Again, the charges produced arestrictly proportional to the applied forces and areindependent of the element’s size and shape. For nelements mechanically in series and electrically inparallel the charge is:C
=2 x d
x F
x nIn contrast to the longitudinal and shear effect, thetransverse effect opens the possibility to fine tunesensitivity depending on the force applied and theelement dimension. Therefore, Piezocryst’s sensorsalmost exclusively use the transverse effect since itis possible to reproducibly obtain high chargeoutputs in combination with excellent temperaturebehaviour.
Based on piezoelectric technology various physicaldimensions can be measured, the most importantinclude pressure and acceleration. Figure 3 showsschematic configurations of those sensors in thetransverse configuration. In both designs, theelements are thin cuboids that are loaded along theirlongest extension. For pressure sensors, a thinmembrane with known dimensions and a massivebase is used; assuring that an applied pressurespecifically loads the elements in one direction. Foraccelerometers, a seismic mass is attached to thecrystal elements. When the accelerometerexperiences a motion, the invariant seismic massloads the elements according to Newton’s secondlaw of motion F=ma.
Figure 3:
Schematic sensor design of pressure (a)and acceleration sensors (b)(a)(b)

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