Crystal oscillator

A crystal oscillator is an electronic circuit that uses the mechanical resonance of a physical crystal of piezoelectric material along with an amplifier and feedback to create an electrical signal with a very precise frequency. It is an especially accurate form of an electronic oscillator. This frequency is used to keep track of time (as in quartz wristwatches), to provide a stable clock for digital integrated circuits, and to stabilize frequencies for radio transmitters. Crystal oscillators are the most common source of time and frequency signals. The crystal used therein is sometimes called a "timing crystal".


Crystals for timing purposes

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A miniature 4.000 MHz quartz timing crystal enclosed in an hermetically sealed package.

A crystal is a solid in which the constituent atoms, molecules, or ions are packed in a regularly ordered, repeating pattern extending in all three spatial dimensions.

Almost any object made of an elastic material could be used like a crystal, with appropriate transducers, since all objects have natural resonant frequencies of vibration. For example, steel is very elastic and has a high speed of sound. It was often used in mechanical filters before quartz. The resonant frequency depends on size, shape, elasticity and the speed of sound in the material. High frequency crystals are typically cut in the shape of a simple, rectangular plate. Low frequency crystals, such as those used in digital watches, are typically cut in the shape of a tuning fork. For applications not needing very precise timing, a low cost ceramic resonator is often used in place of a quartz crystal.

When a crystal of quartz is properly cut and mounted, it can be made to bend in an electric field, by applying a voltage to an electrode near or on the crystal. This property is known as piezoelectricity. When the field is removed, the quartz will generate 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 a circuit composed of an inductor, capacitor and resistor, with a precise resonant frequency.

Quartz has the further advantage that its size changes very little with temperature. Therefore, the resonant frequency of the plate, which depends on its size, will not change much, either. This means that a quartz clock, filter or oscillator will remain accurate. For critical applications the quartz oscillator is mounted in a temperature-controlled container, called an "oven", and can also be mounted on shock absorbers to prevent perturbation by external mechanical vibrations.

Quartz timing crystals are manufactured for frequencies from a few tens of kilohertz to tens of megahertz. More than two billion (2 × 109) crystals are manufactured annually. Most are small devices for wristwatches, clocks, and electronic circuits. However, quartz crystals are also found inside test and measurement equipment, such as counters, signal generators, and oscilloscopes.

Crystals and frequency

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Schematic symbol and equivalent circuit for a quartz crystal in an oscillator

The crystal oscillator circuit sustains oscillation by taking a voltage signal from the quartz resonator, amplifying it, and feeding it back to the resonator. The rate of expansion and contraction of the quartz is the resonant frequency, and is determined by the cut and size of the crystal.

A regular timing crystal contains two electrically conductive plates, with a slice or tuning fork of quartz crystal sandwiched between them. During startup, the circuit around the crystal applies a random noise AC signal to it, and purely by chance, a tiny fraction of the noise will be at the resonant frequency of the crystal. The crystal will therefore start oscillating in synchrony with that signal. As the oscillator amplifies the signals coming out of the crystal, the crystal's frequency will become stronger, eventually dominating the output of the oscillator. Natural resistance in the circuit and in the quartz crystal filter out all the unwanted frequencies.

One of the most important traits of quartz crystal oscillators is that they can exhibit very low phase noise. In other words, the signal they produce is a pure tone. This makes them particularly useful in telecommunications where stable signals are needed, and in scientific equipment where very precise time references are needed.

The output frequency of a quartz oscillator is either the fundamental resonance or a multiple of the resonance, called an overtone frequency.

A typical Q for a quartz oscillator ranges from 104 to 106. The maximum Q for a high stability quartz oscillator can be estimated as Q = 1.6 × 107/f, where f is the resonance frequency in MHz.

Environmental changes of temperature, humidity, pressure, and vibration can change the resonant frequency of a quartz crystal, but there are several designs that reduce these environmental effects. These include the TCXO, MCXO, and OCXO (defined below). These designs (particularly the OCXO) often produce devices with excellent short-term stability. The limitations in short-term stability are due mainly to noise from electronic components in the oscillator circuits. Long term stability is limited by aging of the crystal.

Due to aging and environmental factors such as temperature and vibration, it is hard to keep even the best quartz oscillators within one part in 10-10 of their nominal frequency without constant adjustment. For this reason, atomic oscillators are used for applications that require better long-term stability and accuracy.

Although crystals can be fabricated for any desired resonant frequency, within technological limits, in actual practice today engineers design crystal oscillator circuits around relatively few standard frequencies, such as 10 MHz, 20 MHz and 40 MHz. Using frequency dividers, frequency multipliers and phase locked loop circuits, it is possible to synthesize any desired frequency from the reference frequency.


On electrical schematic diagrams, crystals are designated with the class letter "Y" (Y1, Y2, etc.) Oscillators, whether they are crystal oscillators or other, are designated with the class letter "G" (G1, G2, etc.) (See IEEE Std 315-1975, or ANSI Y32.2-1975) On occasion, one may see a crystal designated on a schematic with "X" or "XTAL", or a crystal oscillator with "XO", but these forms are deprecated.

Crystal oscillator types and their abbreviations:

  • MCXO - microcomputer-compensated crystal oscillator
  • OCVCXO - oven-controlled voltage-controlled crystal oscillator
  • OCXO - oven-controlled crystal oscillator
  • RbXO - rubidium crystal oscillators (RbXO).
  • TCVCXO - temperature-compensated-voltage controlled crystal oscillator
  • TCXO - temperature-compensated crystal oscillator
  • VCXO - voltage-controlled crystal oscillator

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