Movement of the Future: Piezoelectricity as a Ubiquitous Energy Source

Turntables use piezoelectric transducers to convert mechanical energy into sound.

Environmental sustainability affects everyone. Current energy practices produce unnecessary amounts of waste, killing the earth and atmosphere. According to the NRDC, coal-fired power plants account for as much as 42% of harmful mercury emissions in the United States (Denchak, 2018). We envisioned a new future through the use of an existing technology: piezoelectricity.

Chris Woodford defines piezoelectricity as the electric potential across a crystal or ceramic when you apply mechanical stress to it (2020). Many common crystals, like quartz, have this attribute. The sides of the material resemble a battery. When pushed together (or pulled apart) they generate an electric current which can be connected to a metal plate (Fleischer).

Some of these materials are already used to transmit electronic signals in certain devices. Electronic drum kits often use piezo materials to transmit signals to music recording software (Dempsey, 2020). They can also be used as sensors to pick up mechanical force (Gautschi, 2002).

Coal plants account for nearly half of the US’ mercury emissions (Denchak)

Our project is a video in the style of a technology presentation. Similar to an IBM advertisement, it simply spreads the word about the benefits of piezoelectricity. In a future where piezoelectricity is properly harnessed, harmful forms of generating energy can be reduced and the world can run on cleaner, greener fuel — motion. Imagining alternative futures is important in this subject because it allows one to envision the sheer scale of such an infrastructure. It forces one to think of all the areas of everyday life that involve mechanical stress and consider ways in which that stress might be harnessed and used for the community.

Watch our short film on piezoelectricity in an alternate future here:

Processes that utilize piezoelectricity in part or in whole have been explored since the late 19th century, when Frenchmen Pierre and Jacques Curie demonstrated the piezoelectric effect through the use of various crystals and crystalline structures in a compensator that compressed such structures. In doing so, they proved that energy could be derived and converted from crystals into electrical potential energy (Voss, 2014). This would pave the way for early sonar technology during World War I, used extensively by the allies to detect German submarines. Sorted quartz crystals between steel plates helped detect long range echos that played back to crewmates (Shaul, 2012).

Modern applications for piezoelectricity can be found in everyday life, albeit on a much smaller and less efficient scale than portrayed in the video. For example, piezoelectricity is used in turntable transducers to convert mechanical bumps on a record into sound. Most gas-grill lighters use a piezo igniter that creates a spark through compression of a small disc. In addition, most high performance microphones used in media and music use a piezoelectric sound conversion process (Muduli, 2015).

The Sierra Club’s advocacy for solar power as a renewable energy source inspired us to look towards other potential high-upfront, low-maintenance cost alternative energy sources that could be demonstrated through media. Founder John Muir’s desire to protect and conserve National Parks set a progressive precedent for the club to support political candidates and efforts to build sustainable energy sources across the United States (Peterka, 2013). Furthermore, Lynn Jurich’s successful efforts to install solar power in residential homes as the CEO of Sunrun gave us the idea to integrate a future powered by piezoelectricity as the center of the household in a similar way. The continued financial potential and growth for such a market (>$180 billion within the decade) places piezoelectricity as another form of energy that is economically and environmentally feasible (Savchuk, 2016).

When we think about the ubiquity of piezoelectricity as per our video demonstration, we are thinking in terms much larger and unrealistic for a modern day setting. This is what creating an alternate future is all about: generating large, complex ideas that upheave current trends in favor of a better future. Through small changes in the way we perceive and use technology and power, we might start to realize this future may be closer than we previously thought.

“We can dream of a better world; or we can use our brains and our arms to build a better world.” — James E. Holshouser, Jr.

Sustainable energy is a concept that all of us are interested in, as it will soon be the future of all energy production in the world if we continue on the right path. However, not all forms of sustainable energy are as prevalent and widely known as others. For example, when people think of renewable energy, they usually think of solar, wind, and water. This is why we wanted to showcase something new, something more unique.

Piezoelectricity is a lesser known form of renewable energy focused around pressure created from human interactions. We wanted to show this radical new energy source in the most engaging and creative way possible, through film.

Video was the perfect media format for this project because of the dynamic nature of this power source. Being able to show people actively moving, engaging, and powering their everyday surroundings through a collection of sequences explained by a narrator was the perfect way to do this.

The recordings of both the video and audio took place over several days, with long scripts and shot losts to ensure we captured the exact emotions we were going for in order to really wow our audience. The video format allowed us to truly shine in terms of originality and creativity, making this conceptual future as real as we could dream it.

Piezoelectricity is an electric process that converts mechanical pressure into usable power. Through its use and already vast array of applications, it’s plausible to imagine a future in which its use pervades the residential, commercial, and public spheres in dominant aspects as a viable source of alternative energy. Pioneers in its relatively new field have made great strides in unlocking its potential and displaying it for a wider world that needs it now more than ever before. To visualize a viable future power source is to believe in it, and with that, we hope you believe in it too. Because one day, it may help to save our planet.

Works Cited

Dempsey, J. (2020, June 24). How do electronic drums work? Retrieved April 25, 2021, from https://www.dawsons.co.uk/blog/how-do-electronic-drums-work

Denchak, M. (2018, June 29). Fossil fuels: The dirty facts. Retrieved April 25, 2021, from https://www.nrdc.org/stories/fossil-fuels-dirty-facts

Fleischer, C. (2021, February 02). How piezoelectricity works: Eagle: Blog. Retrieved April 25, 2021, from https://www.autodesk.com/products/eagle/blog/piezoelectricity/

Gautschi, G. (2002). Piezoelectric sensorics : force, strain, pressure, acceleration and acoustic emission sensors, materials and amplifiers. Germany: Springer.

Muduli, S. (2015, September 12). Applications of piezoelectricity. Retrieved April 25, 2021, from https://www.slideshare.net/SaktiPrasannaMuduli/applications-of-piezoelectricity

Peterka, A. (2013, December 9). ADVOCACY: Doing for clean energy what John Muir did for preservation. Retrieved April 25, 2021, from https://www.eenews.net/special_reports/shades_green/stories/1059991472

Savchuk, K. (2016, November 07). The Woman-Led company that reinvented solar for homeowners. Retrieved April 25, 2021, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/katiasavchuk/2016/11/07/sunrun-rooftop-solar-lynn-jurich-ed-fenster/?sh=336d3f41138c

Shaul, K. (2012, March 07). Who knew piezoelectricity? Rutherford And Langevin on submarine detection and the invention of sonar. Retrieved April 25, 2021, from https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsnr.2011.0049

Voss, D. (Mar. 2014). This month in physics history. Retrieved April 25, 2021, from https://www.aps.org/publications/apsnews/201403/physicshistory.cfm

Woodford, C. (2020, December 11). Piezoelectricity — how does it work?: What is it used for? Retrieved April 25, 2021, from https://www.explainthatstuff.com/piezoelectricity.html

This work came out of the class Multimedia Production and Digital Culture (COM 367) in the Department of Communication at North Carolina State University in spring 2021. Check out other works from the class here:

Anna Roberds, Charles Walker & Grace Sieck, ENVI Magazine

Sara Trudan, Erin Migneco, & Clio Maxwell, UNNAMED Magazine

Madison Callahan, Addy Holmes, & Logan Ray, Are You Getting This Mockumentary

Parker Mitchell, Drew Hickland, and Maura Estes, NC Sta-y with the times

Ray Youman, Adam Suddarth, and Matt Norris, Movement of the Future: Piezoelectricity