What is a Crystal Oscillator?

Getting to Know This Common Electronic Component

Crystal oscillators are used in a wide range of products such as computers, microprocessors, receivers, timepieces, medical equipment, cell phones, radios, transmitters, and more. They are one of the most commonly used items in the entire components industry.

So, what is a crystal oscillator, and how exactly does it work? What makes a crystal oscillator distinct? Let’s break this down.

Crystal Oscillators Defined

In the electronic components industry, quartz crystals are used for their precise and reliable frequency control, which has made them a great alternative to ceramic resonators. The oscillator portion is what produces a continuous waveform. What’s interesting is that it doesn’t require any input to generate a specific frequency of signal.

Oscillators will either be harmonic (aka linear) or relaxation. With a harmonic oscillator, the energy flows from the active components to the passive components. The frequency of harmonic oscillators is decided by its feedback path. On the other hand, relaxation oscillators utilize an exchange of energy between the passive and active components. This means that the frequency is determined by the discharging and charging time-constants.  

Another element that makes crystal oscillators distinct is how the quartz crystals react when exposed to electricity. When introduced to an electric field, the quartz crystals undergo a minor change in shape, which is known as electrostriction. When the electric current is removed, the quartz crystals will provide a small amount of voltage, which can be utilized with several applications because of the steady time-keeping element of crystal oscillators.

Crystal Oscillator Applications

As previously mentioned, crystal oscillators can be used for several types of products that require a reliable time-keeping element. For instance, companies like Apple and Microsoft use quartz crystal oscillators in their computers due to their ability to provide the best frequency stability and accuracy. They can also be used in PICs, microprocessors, and microcontrollers.

The automobile industry also utilizes quartz crystal oscillators to provide the desired frequency stability that modern automobiles need. Since most automobiles have transitioned fully over to micro-processor-based systems, quartz crystal oscillators are the ideal choice to provide their clock signals. They are also used with many modern safety and convenience features. For instance, many automobiles use quartz crystal oscillators for features like brake controls, airbags, tire pressure monitoring systems, and anti-blocking systems.

Crystal quartz oscillators are still being used for transmitters and radios because of their ultra-precise frequency reference. In fact, the first usage of crystal oscillators in AM radio transmitters dates all the way back to the early 1920s. Many modern car stereo manufacturers have crystal oscillators that are built into their products.

Finally, crystal quartz oscillators are used for watches and time-keeping devices. This all goes back to crystal oscillators being able to provide an extremely precise frequency, which makes them the ideal component to have inside a watch or a clock. In fact, the very first watches that utilized quartz were in the 1970s.

Finding Quartz Crystal Oscillators

If you have a product or application in mind that you need quartz crystal oscillators for, the best way to kick off your search is by Googling the phrase “quartz crystal oscillators near me” or a similar phrase.

Keep in mind, quartz crystal oscillators come  in a variety of specifications. You may need the assistance of a knowledgeable sales rep to identify the exact type of component that you need for your specific application.

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