Ultrasonic material characterization or inspection for defects is conventionally performed using either liquid coupling (water, usually) or some type of gel or oil in contact-mode coupling. Mechanical waves can be transmitted only through some sound-supporting medium from their source (a transducer) to the object under study, and back again. Using distilled, degassed water to couple ultrasound to an object under test works quite well and has many technical advantages, including relatively low signal loss over laboratory or shop dimensions at typical frequencies, almost zero toxicity, and low cost. For many applications, the use of water is acceptable and preferred. There are, however, certain testing applications for which water can be a disadvantage. These situations include materials that are sensitive to contact with water, such as uncured graphite-epoxy composites or certain electronics. Large objects, whose total immersion is impractical, or objects for which rapid scanning is required might also be unsuitable for water coupling. Recent technological developments are beginning to permit the judicious replacement of water by a far more ubiquitous sound coupling medium—air. Ultrasonic testing in air has been investigated for more than 30 years, but recently there has been an upsurge in interest and application because of the availability of much more efficient sound-generating devices designed specifically for operation in air. In water- or direct-coupled ultrasonics, one typically employs piezoelectric transducers to generate sound waves because they are well suited to the generation of sound in water or in solids because of their high acoustic impedance. In air, however, we need just the opposite. Air is very compliant, so waves from a high-impedance source couple poorly into air. Much effort has been invested in finding suitable impedance matching materials that will render the familiar piezoelectric probe efficient in air-coupled (A-C) ultrasound. The problem, however, is nearly insurmountable because of the large acoustic impedance difference between air and quartz, for example. Quartz has an acoustic impedance of about 15 MRayl, while air’s impedance is about 425 Rayl, a ratio of about 35,000. The challenge is to find a material with an acoustic impedance that nearly equals the geometric average of these two widely disparate values.
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