Scientists Say: Piezoelectric

This word describes a material that produces an electric charge when it is squeezed or twisted.

a girl wearing excercise clothing and headphones jams out on an air guitar

Piezoelectric refers to materials that can generate electric voltage from being bent or squeezed. Someday, scientists hope to use them to power electronics with movements — like our air guitar stylings.

praetorianphoto/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Piezoelectric (adjective, “Pee-AY-zo-ee-LECK-trick,” or “PEE-zo-ee-LECK-trick”)

This word refers to a material that produces an electric charge when it’s bent or squeezed. The electricity — a flow of charged particles — results from pressure and heat building up in the material.

Many materials can produce piezoelectricity. Crystals and ceramics — hard materials made baking minerals at very high temperatures — both can. Bones and even some protein molecules can be piezoelectric as well.

Scientists are looking for ways to use piezoelectricity to do work for us. Piezoelectric materials in clothing could charge our cell phones while they sit in our pockets. Keyboards with piezoelectric keys could harvest electricity as we type. Piezoelectric devices could even use our movements to power themselves as they keep track of our health.

The word “piezoelectric” comes from two Greek words. The first — piezen — means to squeeze. The second — elektron — comes from the Greek for amber. Yes, amber. That’s because amber — fossilized tree resin — produces static electricity when you rub it against cloth.

In a sentence

Sound waves can produce tiny vibrations — just enough motion to make a piezoelectric charge in the right material.

Check out the full list of Scientists Say.

Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

More Stories from Science News Explores on Physics