Ultrasonic testing is based on time-varying deformations or vibrations in materials, which is generally referred to as acoustics. All material substances are comprised of atoms, which may be forced into vibrational motion about their equilibrium positions. Many different patterns of vibrational motion exist at the atomic level, however, most are irrelevant to acoustics and ultrasonic testing. Acoustics is focused on particles that contain many atoms that move in unison to produce a mechanical wave. When a material is not stressed in tension or compression beyond its elastic limit, its individual particles perform elastic oscillations. When the particles of a medium are displaced from their equilibrium positions, internal (electrostatic) restoration forces arise. It is these elastic restoring forces between particles, combined with inertia of the particles, that leads to the oscillatory motions of the medium.
In solids, sound waves can propagate in four principle modes that are based on the way the particles oscillate. Sound can propagate as longitudinal waves, shear waves, surface waves, and in thin materials as plate waves. Longitudinal and shear waves are the two modes of propagation most widely used in ultrasonic testing. The particle movement responsible for the propagation of longitudinal and shear waves is illustrated below.
In longitudinal waves, the oscillations occur in the longitudinal direction or the direction of wave propagation. Since compressional and dilational forces are active in these waves, they are also called pressure or compressional waves. They are also sometimes called density waves because their particle density fluctuates as they move. Compression waves can be generated in liquids, as well as solids because the energy travels through the atomic structure by a series of compressions and expansion (rarefaction) movements.
In the transverse or shear wave, the particles oscillate at a right angle or transverse to the direction of propagation. Shear waves require an acoustically solid material for effective propagation, and therefore, are not effectively propagated in materials such as liquids or gasses. Shear waves are relatively weak when compared to longitudinal waves. In fact, shear waves are usually generated in materials using some of the energy from longitudinal waves.