Let’s learn about piezoelectric materials

Piezoelectric materials transform energy from sounds or movements into electricity

two teens wearing blue workout shirts jog in a park; one is wearing wireless earbuds

Someday, piezoelectric materials in clothing could turn the energy from motion into electricity to power wearable electronics, such as earbuds.

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Drawing power from crystals might sound like fantasy. But some real crystalline materials generate electricity.

These materials are known as “piezoelectric.” When the material is bent or pressed, a difference in electric charge — or voltage — builds up across it. That voltage can then be used to power devices. This allows piezoelectric materials to transform vibrations or other motions into electricity.

These materials can be found in some common items. For instance, they power the tiny speakers in singing birthday cards. They also spark the flames of some handheld lighters. But scientists are finding clever new ways to harness piezoelectric power. Some are working on clothes that turn body movement into electricity that could charge a phone. Others constructed a device that could use sounds from fish or ships to charge underwater cameras.

Piezoelectric materials can also work the other way around, using electricity to produce sound. This allowed one team to make wallpaper that acts like a speaker. Electricity causes tiny structures in the paper to expand or contract. That, in turn, creates sound waves in the air. Such high-tech wallpaper could play music. Or it could produce noise-canceling sound waves for quiet.

Want to know more? We’ve got some stories to get you started:

Bye-bye batteries? Power a phone with fabric or a beacon with sound New piezoelectric systems produce electricity in unusual ways, such as when a certain nylon bends or underwater ceramics vibrate. (1/6/2021) Readability: 7.9

This new fabric can ‘hear’ sounds or broadcast them With special fibers that convert tiny vibrations to voltages, a new fabric senses sound. Someday, such fabrics could monitor the body or aid hearing. (4/29/2022) Readability: 7.5

Teen’s invention could help light up bikes at night A teen researcher from Georgia has developed a light that could replace reflectors on bike wheels. Flexing tires provide all the power it needs. (5/24/2017) Readability: 7.1

Why are some materials piezoelectric, while others are not? TED-Ed explains.

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Cool Jobs: Making electronics to wear

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Activities

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Want to see piezoelectric power in action? Build your own piezoelectric generator to light up an LED bulb!

Maria Temming is the assistant editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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