Ultrasound and Ultrasonic Testing

After reading this section you will be able to do the following:

  • Define the acronym "NDT."
  • Explain how sound is used in NDT to find flaws.
  • Explain how sound is used in NDT to measure material thickness.

Why is it important to understand sound?

There are many uses for sound in the world today. We have already mentioned a few. Musicians can benefit from a greater understanding of sound, architects must understand sound to design effective auditoriums, detectives can use sound to identify people, and many new types of technology apply sound recognition. Another use of sound is in the area of science called Nondestructive testing, or NDT.

What is NDT?

Nondestructive testing is a method of finding defects in an object without harming the object. Often finding these defects is a very important task. In the aircraft industry, NDT is used to look for internal changes or signs of wear on airplanes. Discovering defects will increase the safety of the passengers. The railroad industry also uses nondestructive testing to examine railway rails for signs of damage. Internally cracked rails could fracture and derail a train carrying wheat, coal, or even people. If an airplane or a rail had to be cut into pieces to be examined, it would destroy their usefulness. With NDT, defects may be found before they become dangerous.

How is ultrasound used in NDT?

Sound with high frequencies, or ultrasound, is one method used in NDT. Basically, ultrasonic waves are emitted from a transducer into an object and the returning waves are analyzed. If an impurity or a crack is present, the sound will bounce off of them and be seen in the returned signal. In order to create ultrasonic waves, a transducer contains a thin disk made of a crystalline material with piezoelectric properties, such as quartz. When electricity is applied to piezoelectric materials, they begin to vibrate, using the electrical energy to create movement. Remember that waves travel in every direction from the source. To keep the waves from going backwards into the transducer and interfering with its reception of returning waves, an absorptive material is layered behind the crystal. Thus, the ultrasound waves only travel outward.

When a transducer is moved over the surface of a part with defects, inspectors read waveforms of the sound's echoes off of both the object's surfaces and it's defects.One type of ultrasonic testing places the transducer in contact with the test object. If the transducer is placed flat on a surface to locate defects, the waves will go straight into the material, bounce off a flat back wall and return straight to the transducer. The animation on the right, developed by NDTA, Wellington, New Zealand, illustrates that sound waves propagate into a object being tested and reflected waves return from discontinuities along the sonic path. Some of the energy will be absorbed by the material, but some of it will return to the transducer.

Ultrasonic measurements can be used to determine the thickness of materials and determine the location of a discontinuity within a part or structure by accurately measuring the time required for a ultrasonic pulse to travel through the material and reflect from the backsurface or the discontinuity.

When the mechanical sound energy comes back to the transducer, it is converted into electrical energy. Just as the piezoelectric crystal converted electrical energy into sound energy, it can also do the reverse. The mechanical vibrations in the material couple to the piezoelectric crystal which, in turn, generates electrical current.

Your Turn - Try this normal beam test

A pulse-echo ultrasonic measurement can determine the location of a discontinuity with a part or structure by accurately measuring the time required for a short ultrasonic pulse generated by a transducer to travel through a thickness of the material. Then it reflects from the back or surface of a discontinuity and is returned to the transducer.

The applet below allows you to move the transducer on the surface of a stainless steel test block and see the reflected echoes as the would appear on an oscilloscope.

Move the transducer along the test piece and observe the oscilloscope reading.

What the graphs tell us?

The ultrasonic tester graphs a peak of energy whenever the transducer receives a reflected wave. As you recall, sound is reflected any time a wave changes mediums. Thus, there will be a peak anytime the waves change mediums. Right when the initial pulse of energy is sent from the tester, some is reflected as the ultrasonic waves go from the transducer into the couplant. The first peak is therefore said to record the energy of the initial pulse. The next peak in a material with no defects is the backwall peak. This is the reflection from waves changing between the bottom of the test material and the material behind it, such as air or the table it is on. The backwall peak will not have as much energy as the first pulse, because some of the energy is absorbed by the test object and some into the material behind it.

The amount of distance between peaks on the graph can be used to locate the defects. If the graph has 10 divisions and the test object is 2 inches thick, each division represents 0.2 inches. If a defect peak occurs at the 8th division, we know the defect is located 1.6 (0.2 x 8) inches into the test object.

What if the thickness is unknown?

If the thickness of the object is unknown, it can be calculated using the amount of time it takes for the back wall peak to occur. The thickness of the object is traveled twice in that time, once to the back wall and once returning to the transducer. If we know the speed of our sound, then we can calculate the distance it traveled, which is the thickness of the object times two.

What happens when a defect is present?

If a defect is present, it will reflect energy sooner also. Another peak would then appear from the defect. Since it reflected energy sooner than the back wall, the defect's energy would be received sooner. This causes the defect peak to appear before the backwall peak. Since some of the energy is absorbed and reflected by the defect, less will reach the backwall. Thus the peak of the backwall will be lower than had there been no defect interrupting the sound wave.

When the wave returns to the transducer, some of its energy bounces back into the test object and heads towards the back wall again. This second reflection will produce peaks similar to the first set of backwall peaks. Some of the energy, however, has been lost, so the height of all the peaks will be lower. These reflections, called multiples, will continue until all the sound energy has been absorbed or lost through transmission across the interfaces.