quartz crystal

What Is a Quartz Crystal Blank? How Does This Resonating Surface Shape Our World?

When we think of a crystal, many of us imagine quartz. Quartz is nearly synonymous with the word crystal, primarily because of its abundance. Quartz is the second most abundant mineral in our Earth’s crust. You have likely picked up a piece of quartz while hiking, or you’ve seen a sparkling vein of this mineral running through a rock. In museum gift shops, you are likely to find a child admiring a piece of quartz strung from a necklace, which they consider a valuable treasure.

We encounter quartz most frequently on kitchen countertops and in that same kitchen’s glassware. One does not have to stretch their imagination too far to imagine how a mineral could aid in making these products. However, it is staggering to think that a material that has been present for billions of years can also provide vital functionality in future technologies. How? It all begins with the Greek word for “push.”

The History of Quartz Innovations Leading Up to the Quartz Crystal Blank

Electronics have reached new heights that we have been hurtling toward since the latter part of the 19th century, when electricity was fully harnessed for everyday use. During this time, electrical applications increased exponentially, as luminaries like Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla and Alexander Graham Bell made their extraordinary contributions.

It can also be argued that Jacques and Pierre Curie’s discovery of quartz crystal as an electrical component should be included alongside Edison, Tesla and Bell in the history of innovation that ushered in modernity. These two scientists (the latter of whom eventually shared half of the Nobel Prize for Physics with his wife, the groundbreaking scientist Marie Curie) discovered that quartz, when agitated, creates an electrical charge. They named this phenomenon piezoelectricity from the Greek word for “push” to explain how a passive element releases electricity when stressed.

Much like any scientific breakthrough, piezoelectricity generated by quartz crystal formed the basis for experiments with quartz crystal oscillators, including contributions by Alexander Nicholson and Walter Guy Cady. These further developments helped scientists to understand that quartz crystal when oscillated created a dependable and specific frequency depending on the size of the piece of quartz. By the turn of the 20th century, Bell Telephone Laboratories and the General Electric Company both opened facilities to study quartz crystal.

By the late 1920s, quartz crystal units were built and sold for radios and two-way communication. Concurrently, the first recognizable quartz product was invented, which most people who remember analog electronics will recognize: the quartz watch. The quartz watch was invented by Warren Marrison, who built on the knowledge that a crystal, when cut to a specific size, generates frequency pulses that are the equivalent of one second intervals. When integrated into a watch, a piece of quartz crystal is used to control the timing of the watch’s second hand and keep perfect time.

However, it was August E. Miller who began grinding quartz crystal and selling it to radio enthusiasts who were experimenting with radio-building. Interestingly, Miller’s initial expertise with quartz came from his experience grinding the crystal for eyeglass lenses, thus bridging the gap between practical uses of quartz with what was to become a cutting-edge function. Miller knew that to create a desired frequency, quartz must be cut to a certain size. Much like a sculptor who begins with a solid block, the engineer begins with a quartz crystal blank.

What Is a Quartz Crystal Blank?

Quartz is grown outside its natural source by specialized manufacturing companies for distribution to leading designers of quartz crystal components. Quartz used for engineering purposes is cleaned of impurities and turned into an ingot under precise environmental conditions in an autoclave. This ensures quartz’s high quality (referred to in industry jargon as a high “q” factor).

At this point, the treated quartz, which is referred to as a “blank,” is prepared for use as an electronic component. It is cut utilizing an etching or grinding process, which fundamentally determines its frequency. Engineers have experimented with smaller sizes and various cutting methods to attain the best performing frequency components possible, particularly as the demand for higher quality frequency solutions has grown. Today, using the latest iterations of measurement software and automated cutting machinery, manufacturers can make precise cuts to generate exceptionally small – and effective – crystal blanks.

Before quartz crystal can participate in the engineering process, it is outfitted with electrodes and leads, hermetically sealed in nitrogen for contaminant protection and inspected to ensure its performance in the many products its frequency capability benefits.

Strategic adjustments can be made to create desirable performance characteristics:

  • Further options for frequency range
  • Low power consumption
  • Frequency stability
  • Integration into more compact designs
  • Less expansion to protect from significant temperature coefficients

The Benefits of Quartz Crystal Blanks and Oscillators

By the 1940s, quartz crystal emerged as the most reliable frequency-generating material. During World War II, allied forces relied upon its value for radio transmissions and RADAR systems that proved integral to their success.

Since that time, our reliance on quartz-crystal-dependent technology has grown exponentially, tracking with the explosive growth of technology in general. Quartz has remained a vital force in the evolution of electronics. It was with us in the days of Bell Telephone Laboratories and continues delivering its key functionality in the latest iPhone.

Although the basic properties, effects and science behind the quartz crystal oscillator have remained the same over the past 150 years, the technology into which quartz is integrated has changed drastically. You can find quartz crystal electronic components in today’s cutting-edge technology, including:

  • Medical devices
  • Data and communication applications
  • Automotive technology
  • Smart home appliances and features
  • Industrial automation
  • AI applications
  • And much more

Look to a globally recognized electronics manufacturer that specializes in quartz crystal products. A manufacturer with a global reputation will continue to push the boundaries of quartz crystals’ capabilities, including ensuring high performance at a wide temperature range, small package size for small devices and additional performance characteristics that differentiate it from other frequency-generating materials.

While quartz crystals do have their marketplace competitors, these materials do not have the staying power of quartz, nor do they demonstrate the affordability, durability and versatility that quartz has proven in its storied history.

If you’re looking for more content that answers engineering questions, such as “What is a quartz crystal blank?” explore this archive of frequency-related engineering resources to discover more about quartz crystal, including how far this technology has brought us since the Curie brothers’ initial discovery.

The Evolution of the Quartz Crystal Blank was last modified: December 11th, 2023 by ECS Inc.