Out of the Mist: What’s Inside the Mesh Nebulizer?

The nebulizer is an essential and evolving method for treating COPD, asthma, and respiratory symptoms with aeresolized medication.

At Sunset, we hold this personal aide in high regard. We proudly manufacture our own Compressor Nebulizer and Handheld Compressor Nebulizer, and we’ve recently incorporated the Flyp Portable Nebulizer—a truly sophisticated device!

We’re fascinated by the nebulizer’s international roots, from German steam inhalers to hand bulb nebulizers, vaporizers and atomizers.

In the 1960s, when engineers experimented with heat and ultrasonic technology, they produced sleeker, more portable devices—incorporating frequency and pressure to produce finer medication particles and faster treatment.

The Pulverisateur, 1858 (Photo courtesy of Mark Sanders & AARC Virtual Museum)

Vibrating Mesh Technology (VMT), which emerged in the 1990s, still stands as a breakthrough discovery for the industry. VMT aeresolizes medication through a tiny, vibrating disk with over a thousand laser-drilled holes. Presently, VMT fuels a family of devices celebrated for their ultra rapid treatment time, low noise and petite size: the mesh nebulizers.

But, how can these portable, often handheld devices produce such power? Or, why aren’t we still using the portable, bicycle pump-styled nebulizer known in 1800s France as “the Pulverisateur”?

The answer is piezoelectricity —which is a mysterious-sounding word we should investigate.

Piezo·electricity

Did you know that the word “electricity” pulls from the classic Greek word elektron, which translates to “amber”—as in, the gem?

Though we often use it as an ornament, amber is actually fossilized tree resin that was an ancient curiosity due to its mysterious attributes.

Amber (Josh Blaine)

According to popular lore, Greek scientists noticed that the sun-toned stone attracted bits of fiber—and attempts to remove the material by rubbing it merely intensified the magnetic effect.

Though the first study on piezoelectricity emerged in France in 1880 (just after the Pulverisateur), this amber exercise is still used in grade school science lessons to demonstrate the phenomenon of electrostatic charge.

The Greek tale—specifically, their futile attempts to rub the fabric off—produced the prefix piezo, which is Greek for “to press,” or squeeze.

So, “piezoelectricity” simply refers to the electrical charge that accumulates in certain solids (like amber) when they are pressed, or undergo changes in pressure.

However! Further research tells us that not just any solid will work.

Topaz and tourmaline are piezoelectric—but glass is not. Piezoelectric material is almost always a crystal or ceramic solid, as both tend to have symmetrical atomic structures that can convert one type of energy to another (…more on this later). Of the crystals, quartz is the most commonly used piezoelectric material.

How does it work?

If you were to physically squeeze a piece of quartz, an invisible electrical charge would flow through it.

What’s happening, is that the pressure is changing the arrangement of its symmetrical atomic structure. Some of the atoms are drawing closer to each other and others further apart. This effect causes the crystal to “polarize,” sending positive charge to one side of the material and negative charge to the other, like a magnet. Or a tiny battery.

With the same concept, when engineers pass voltage through the quartz, the atoms squeeze themselves, vibrating back and forth and creating a charge. It’s this second feature that makes small devices run.

Quartz watches and clocks operate by this principle of piezoelectricity. Electrodes connect to an internal quartz crystal, charging it with a signal. When the quartz polarizes, it produces a reliable time-keeping frequency!

A contact microphone (Patrick Lauke)

The contact microphone is another great example of piezo power. This tiny device contains a piezo assembly—either ceramic or a very thin layer of crystals, mounted on a disk—that can convert sound wave vibrations into amplified sound.

Acoustic musicians often mount these microphones directly onto their instruments, plugging the attached cable into an amplifier or recording unit. When the instrument emits sound wave vibration, the piezo disk converts this to audible sound—and boosts quieter instruments like violin… or ukelele!

Mesh nebulizers

Unlike jet, or compressor, nebulizers and most ultrasonic models, the mesh nebulizer almost always utilizes a piezoelectric assembly. This setup is ideal for these sleek, pared down handhelds, with their small but extremely mighty vibrating internal disks.

Flyp’s internal disk

At Convexity Scientific, Chief Commercial Officer Geoff Matous explains that the pocket-sized Flyp Portable Nebulizer uses piezoelectric technology to fuel its powerhouse mesh disk, which vibrates almost silently at the speed of 111,000 times per second!

“The piezoelectric assembly is a ceramic ring plus stainless steel mesh that sits directly in contact with the medication in the reservoir,” explains Matous.

Since Flyp’s piezo disk is right up against the solution, Matous explains, it is technically categorized as an “active” mesh nebulizer. Passive mesh nebulizers generally have a disk and a separate piezo element or horn, which generates frequencies to push the fluid up through the disk.

When Flyp’s piezo disk becomes polarized by the surrounding signal of voltage, frequency and wave form, it vibrates and moves medication organically through its holes, producing micro droplets and a consistent, inhalable mist.

One clinical application difference to note between active and passive mesh nebulizers is that delivery performance with suspensionmedication—Budesonide, for example—is commonly more reliable with active mesh. Presumably, the internal layout also contributes to the active mesh nebulizer’s compact size.

De-mist-ified

Flyp Portable Nebulizer

So, the next time you pick up your mesh nebulizer, think of the unique and fascinating technology that’s fueling it.

In addition to helping you maintain optimal health, it might lead to an interesting conversation!