What Are Crystal Oscillators and How Do They Work?


Even a knowledgeable engineer in the electronics design community might have questions about this important quartz-based product, especially if they’ve never integrated one into a circuit board on a product they’re creating.

Because there are a handful of other types of oscillators on the market – and because quartz crystal is typically associated with the function of wristwatches – an engineer may have mistakenly overlooked the myriad use cases for these important, effective components.

However, when examined carefully, it becomes clear why crystal oscillators – and the many applications they benefit – are a powerful tool that should be at arm’s reach in any engineer’s workspace.

What Are Crystal Oscillators?

To describe a crystal oscillator, it is important first to explain quartz crystal. The second most abundant mineral on earth is quartz, and – even in tiny slivers – it can be used to generate an electrical frequency.

This is because quartz crystal is known as a passive component. This means that it can store energy within it, which can be stored or released. When an engineer applies mechanical vibrations to a piece of quartz, that energy is released, and this is how frequency is created.

When vibration is applied at a steady rate to create a frequency, the crystal is experiencing oscillation. When the rate of vibration is steady, you get a stable frequency from the oscillating crystal, which is the reason why these products are so valuable. If you have an application that requires a strong frequency-based solution, Crystal provides unparalleled quality.

What Are Crystal Oscillator Frequencies Used For?

Crystal oscillators generate various frequencies, which are measured by how many frequency waves are produced within a set period. The oscillation of a crystal can be adjusted to change the frequency, depending on what purpose it is being used for. This process can be done in part by adjusting the size of the crystal being used.

Adjusting frequency is necessary because different electronic products operate on various frequencies. For example, real-time clocks (clocks that can maintain time even when a system is powered down) function at a frequency of 32.768 kHz.

Frequencies derived from quartz crystal oscillators can be used in many, many industries, including:

  • Medical
  • Wireless Tech
  • Wearable Devices
  • Automotive
  • IoT and Smart Home
  • Networking
  • Industrial Manufacturing

As you can imagine, most electronic devices could potentially rely on crystal oscillators – and many of them do. As soon as engineers recognize the power of these components, they are apt to use them more and more for their frequency solutions.

How Is Frequency Maintained to Ensure a Quality Signal?

Frequency is maintained in a quartz crystal oscillator by ensuring that the oscillation remains steady and stable. This is important to the success of the application because information can’t be transmitted from one place to another without a high-performing signal.

Frequency is also maintained using the following technologies:

  • Protection from temperature changes
  • Protection from natural frequency drift
  • Ruggedized features to insulate the frequency from vigorous movement (as in a motor vehicle)

A superior company that designs crystal oscillators will likely have a variety of oscillators that can endure any set of conditions. If your application is going to be outdoors, for instance, it will likely experience both hot and cold temperatures. Therefore, you’ll need a frequency solution that suits your needs; and it is likely, if you work with the right manufacturer, that you’ll get what you need.

Where Should an Engineer Purchase Crystal Oscillators?

When searching for a company that manufactures crystal oscillators, you should be mindful of certain characteristics. This way, you’ll know you’re getting a superior product.

Look for these attributes:

  • The manufacturer focuses almost exclusively on crystals, not other oscillation products – this will tell you where their true investment is as engineers.
  • The manufacturer’s website offers a wide variety of frequency solutions depending on your application’s needs.
  • They should have a parametric search function that allows you to choose an oscillator by key attributes that you can’t live without, such as the precise frequency you require.
  • This company should also have distributors all over the world and offer engineering support, so you can get the help you need right away.

There is no doubt that crystal oscillators will continue to benefit our world with exceptional frequency capability. With a little knowledge about these products and an understanding of where to find them, any engineer’s product is sure to benefit. The automotive, medical, and manufacturing industries already have improved, and these industries are arguably some of the most stringent, regulated institutions in terms of the functionality, safety, and high performance their work requires. The fact that quartz crystal products are preferred here is a significant testament to the power of these oscillators.

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