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Four Different Types of Oscillators Engineers Rely On

Four Different Types of Oscillators Engineers Rely On

Oscillators are Designed with Specific Materials for a Wide Variety of Uses

When researching oscillators – no matter the variety – one begins to realize that they are everywhere. They come in all shapes and sizes, and they are used in a wide variety of industries. Why we need them is simple: an oscillator is a device that creates a consistent waveform of a specific frequency when a current flows through it.

There are, however, enough types of oscillators that a breakdown of common types as well as their uses in our everyday lives provides a greater understanding of their importance. Below is a list of the most common types of oscillators, what they do, and how they benefits various industries.

Chances are, you’ve come into contact with more oscillators than you think, making them an engineering feat that’s had long-standing effects on how things work.

Quartz Crystal Oscillators

The quartz crystal oscillator is the oscillator you’re most likely sitting closest to while reading this. Quartz crystal oscillators are used primarily for timing applications, the “quartz watch” being the most familiar of these. The crystal oscillator creates a consistent, stable frequency which is then used by a circuit to create a pulse. In turn, that pulse is used to power the motors that make a clock move dependably and precisely. A timing application is also used in stereos and computers, so thank a crystal oscillator for those, too.

The stable frequency and durability of this small crystal makes it the widest-used for timing needs. A precise, timed pulse is also necessary in a computer’s sound and graphic cards so that visuals can be processed and appear as intended, and so that sound frequency is both steady and wide-ranging.

If you can think of a device that keeps time, it is likely that this level of precision is enabled by a quartz crystal oscillator. More recently, Bluetooth products have adopted the crystal oscillator for their protocols, too.

TCXO Oscillators

Similar to the crystal oscillator, the TCXO (“temperature compensated crystal oscillator”) takes temperature into consideration by counteracting temperature change which results from a quartz crystal oscillator’s vibrations as well as outside factors, such as where a device that contains an oscillator is being used. This is done through a “correction voltage” so that the temperature does not affect the functioning of the product.

Because certain devices like cell phones are exposed to various elements, but still require a consistent, precise frequency, temperature compensation provides the solution. The TCXO serves as a kind of amendment to the original crystal oscillator, building off of its capabilities for relevant use cases, while also addressing issues related to temperature.

Wien Bridge Oscillators

Before moving on to a new technology for oscillation entirely, let’s take a look at another type of oscillator that is used very commonly and in a manner that is consistent with both the crystal oscillator and the TCXO.

When testing a power amplifier, a listener will want to determine at what level distortion is apparent. Distortion, of course, is an undesirable frequency when audio levels fall outside of a desirable sound curve.

A Wien Bridge oscillator creates the consistent output of a regular sine wave so that a distortion test can be performed, and proper measurements of sound gear can be made, ensuring high-quality sound. That consistent output from the Wien Bridge at various frequencies allows a tester to measure at what frequencies audio begins to distort on that particular piece of equipment, such as a pre-amp or speakers, and adjust it appropriately. Nearly anyone who is working with sound equipment relies on this type of oscillator.

Opto-Electronic Oscillators

One of the most precise forms of oscillators, the opto-electronic oscillator, is not subject to the same level of phase noise – or noise created from the vibrations of an oscillator – that typically characterizes crystal oscillators and others.

This characteristic of the opto-electronic oscillator, driven by the use of light energy in the process of creating a frequency, makes it far more valuable in precise technologies such as radar, telecommunications, and even aerospace engineering.

Oscillators in Everyday Life

Looking at the few common examples above, oscillators are a consistent part of the manufacturing of electronic equipment, whether it be performance, protection, and even testing in the case of the Wien Bridge oscillator.

Knowledge that the oscillator can continue to evolve – as is the case with opto-electronic oscillators – signals that oscillator technology is ongoing. In fact, researchers at the University of California in Los Angeles have attempted to create “nanoscale” oscillators that are of a completely different composition than the others we’ve covered. These oscillators operate at a quantum level and are therefore very compact, inexpensive, and energy efficient.

Oscillators – no matter the type – offer high-precision frequencies, and are an important, though small, part of so much of the technology we take for granted.

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