A crystal oscillator is an electronic oscillator circuit that uses the mechanical resonance of a vibrating crystal of piezoelectric material to create an electrical signal with a precise frequency. This frequency is often used to keep track of time, as in quartz wristwatches, to provide a stable clock signal for digital integrated circuits, and to stabilize frequencies for radio transmitters and receivers. The most common type of piezoelectric resonator used is the quartz crystal, so oscillator circuits incorporating them became known as crystal oscillators, but other piezoelectric materials including polycrystalline ceramics are used in similar circuits.
A crystal oscillator, particularly one made of quartz crystal, works by being distorted by an electric field when voltage is applied to an electrode near or on the crystal. This property is known as electrostriction or inverse piezoelectricity. When the field is removed, the quartz – which oscillates in a precise frequency – generates an electric field as it returns to its previous shape, and this can generate a voltage. The result is that a quartz crystal behaves like an RLC circuit.
Quartz crystals are manufactured for frequencies from a few tens of kilohertz to hundreds of megahertz. More than two billion crystals are manufactured annually. Most are used for consumer devices such as wristwatches, clocks, radios, computers, and cellphones. Quartz crystals are also found inside test and measurement equipment, such as counters, signal generators, and oscilloscopes.