The piezoelectric materials that inhabit everything from our cell phones to musical greeting cards may be getting an upgrade thanks to work discussed in the journal Nature Materials released online Jan 21.

Xiaoyu ‘Rayne’ Zheng, assistant professor of mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering and a member of the Macromolecules Innovation Institute, and his team have developed methods to 3D print piezoelectric materials that can be custom designed to convert movement, impact, and stress from any directions to electrical energy.

“Piezoelectric materials convert strain and stress into electric charges,” Zheng explained.

The piezoelectric materials come in only a few defined shapes and are made of brittle crystal and ceramic – the kind that require a clean room to manufacture. Zheng’s team has developed a technique to 3D print these materials so they are not restricted by shape or size. The material can also be activated, providing the next generation of intelligent infrastructures and smart materials for tactile sensing, impact and vibration monitoring, energy harvesting, and other applications.