Scientists Say: Piezoelectric

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.

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