In commercial devices, piezoelectric, piezoresistive and capacitive components are commonly used to convert the mechanical motion into an electrical signal. Piezoelectric accelerometers rely on piezoceramics (e.g. lead zirconate titanate) or single crystals (e.g. quartz, tourmaline). They are unmatched in terms of their upper frequency range, low packaged weight and high temperature range. Piezoresistive accelerometers are preferred in high shock applications. Capacitive accelerometers typically use a silicon micro-machined sensing element. Their performance is superior in the low frequency range and they can be operated in servo mode to achieve high stability and linearity.
Modern accelerometers are often small micro electro-mechanical systems (MEMS), and are indeed the simplest MEMS devices possible, consisting of little more than a cantilever beam with a proof mass (also known as seismic mass). Damping results from the residual gas sealed in the device. As long as the Q-factor is not too low, damping does not result in a lower sensitivity.
Under the influence of external accelerations the proof mass deflects from its neutral position. This deflection is measured in an analog or digital manner. Most commonly, the capacitance between a set of fixed beams and a set of beams attached to the proof mass is measured. This method is simple, reliable, and inexpensive. Integrating piezoresistors in the springs to detect spring deformation, and thus deflection, is a good alternative, although a few more process steps are needed during the fabrication sequence. For very high sensitivities quantum tunneling is also used; this requires a dedicated process making it very expensive. Optical measurement has been demonstrated on laboratory scale.
Another, far less common, type of MEMS-based accelerometer contains a small heater at the bottom of a very small dome, which heats the air inside the dome to cause it to rise. A thermocouple on the dome determines where the heated air reaches the dome and the deflection off the center is a measure of the acceleration applied to the sensor.
Most micromechanical accelerometers operate in-plane, that is, they are designed to be sensitive only to a direction in the plane of the die. By integrating two devices perpendicularly on a single die a two-axis accelerometer can be made. By adding an additional out-of-plane device three axes can be measured. Such a combination may have much lower misalignment error than three discrete models combined after packaging