Ultrasonic testing uses the same principle as is used in naval SONAR and fish finders. Ultra-high frequency sound is introduced into the part being inspected and if the sound hits a material with a different acoustic impedance (density and acoustic velocity), some of the sound will reflect back to the sending unit and can be presented on a visual display. By knowing the speed of the sound through the part (the acoustic velocity) and the time required for the sound to return to the sending unit, the distance to the reflector (the indication with the different acoustic impedance) can be determined. The most common sound frequencies used in UT are between 1.0 and 10.0 MHz, which are too high to be heard and do not travel through air. The lower frequencies have greater penetrating power but less sensitivity (the ability to "see" small indications), while the higher frequencies don't penetrate as deeply but can detect smaller indications.
The two most commonly used types of sound waves used in industrial inspections are the compression (longitudinal) wave and the shear (transverse) wave, as shown in Figure 10. Compression waves cause the atoms in a part to vibrate back and forth parallel to the sound direction and shear waves cause the atoms to vibrate perpendicularly (from side to side) to the direction of the sound. Shear waves travel at approximately half the speed of longitudinal waves.
Sound is introduced into the part using an ultrasonic transducer ("probe") that converts electrical impulses from the UT machine into sound waves, then converts returning sound back into electric impulses that can be displayed as a visual representation on a digital or LCD screen (on older machines, a CRT screen). If the machine is properly calibrated, the operator can determine the distance from the transducer to the reflector, and in many cases, an experienced operator can determine the type of discontinuity (like slag, porosity or cracks in a weld) that caused the reflector. Because ultrasound will not travel through air (the atoms in air molecules are too far apart to transmit ultrasound), a liquid or gel called "couplant" is used between the face of the transducer and the surface of the part to allow the sound to be transmitted into the part.