The piezo-electric effect that some ceramic materials such as lithium niobate exhibit enables useful applications, such as pressure sensors and audible alarms. When piezo-electric material has an electric field applied across it, usually through metal electrodes, the material changes shape.

This often takes the form of local material expansion or contraction (depending on the polarity of the applied voltage). In the case of the audible alarm, the material expansion and contraction modulates the air pressure to give an audible tone if the electric field is alternating at audio frequencies.

One form of the piezo-electric effect is the SAW (surface-acousticwave) phenomenon, in which signals travel due to an acoustic wave in the ceramic material. To see this effect the piezo-electric material has one side bonded to a metal plate.

The upper surface has metal electrodes applied to it, to provide an electric energizing force. The surface wave is created when a material is forced to expand (by the piezoelectric effect) beneath the metal electrodes.

Physical bonds between molecules then force adjacent material to expand and this expansion propagates through the material.

The piezo-electric effect is bi-directional, so that if the material between electrodes changes shape, an electric field is generated between the electrodes. This is the effect seen when a piezo-electric gas lighter is used: a sudden force across a piezo-electric element generates high voltages that force a spark to be produced.

In the SAW device, the acoustic wave travels along the material and deforms the piezo-electric material between a second set of electrodes, which are located at the other end of the piezo-electric material. A voltage is then formed between these electrodes.

By having two sets of electrodes, known as transducers, at opposite ends of a piece of piezo-electric material, a signal can be transmitted through the material by applying a voltage at one end and detecting it at the other.

The range of frequencies that propagate through the piezo-electric material can be controlled by suitable transmit and receive transducer spacing. The propagation frequencies can be further controlled by applying additional metallized areas (described later) between the transmit and receive transducers.

Thus SAW devices could be used to make compact and low-cost filters. SAW resonators use piezo-electric material that is free to vibrate in one direction.

The speed of wave propagation and the dimensions of the material are such that the wave reflects back and forth, resonating at a certain frequency. This can replace quartz crystals in many oscillator circuits, where the frequency accuracy is not critical.

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