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ePhysics 11

ePhysics 11


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chapter 15 Medical physics

and the air molecules nearby are scooped up closer to one another; we say
that an area of higher air pressure or a compression has been created. As the
sound source moves backwards it leaves a region of space that is emptier
than usual. That is, a rarefaction or area of lower air pressure is formed. This
process is continued over and over so that a sequence of compressions and
rarefactions is formed, as shown in Figure 15.2. These compressions and
rarefactions travel away from the source. As the sound wave is carried
though the medium, each individual air molecule will just vibrate to and
fro around a central mean position. The air molecules do not undergo any
overall change in their mean position.

Since sound waves are longitudinal they are capable of travelling through
solids, liquids and gases. In your study of waves you saw that transverse
waves could travel across the surface of liquids, but they do not travel
readily within the liquid itself. Unless a solid material is particularly elastic
it can be difficult to make a solid medium carry a transverse wave. The
ability of longitudinal sound waves to travel through solids, liquids and
gases makes them particularly suitable for imaging the human body.

properties of sound waves

In order to appreciate the details of the use of ultrasound you will need to
be familiar with the following properties of sound waves.

The frequency of a sound wave, f, is determined by the frequency with
which the source of the sound wave vibrates. Frequency (measured in hertz)

Figure 15.1 (a) transverse waves;
(b) longitudinal waves.

Figure 15.2 compressions and rarefactions move through the medium and its particles vibrate.

Transverse wave

movement of hand
from side–to–side

wave movement

particle movement






Longitudinal wave

movement of hand
backwards and forwards

wave movement

particle movement












C = compression

R = rarefaction

direction of travel of sound waves


longitudinal displacement
of air molecules

loudspeaker diaphragm


Detailed studies

is the number of vibrations or cycles that are completed per second or the
number of complete sound waves that pass a given point per second. Since
the period, T, is the time interval for one vibration or cycle to be completed,
it follows that:

f = 1
where f is the frequency of the sound wave in hertz (Hz)
T is the period of the sound wave in seconds (s)

The wavelength, λ, of a sound wave is the distance (within the medium
that is carrying the sound wave) between successive points that have the
same displacement and are moving in the same direction. This is also
referred to as successive points being in phase. The amplitude, A, of a wave
is the value of the maximum displacement of a particle from its mean
position. If the sound wave is of an audible frequency its amplitude would
determine the loudness of the sound. Even though ultrasound is inaudible,
the amplitude of the sound wave affects the amount of energy it carries.

In our previous study we saw that the frequency of the source of
a wave and the velocity of that wave in the medium together determine
the resulting wavelength. In a given medium, sound waves of a higher
frequency would result in waves that were closer together; that is, waves
of a shorter wavelength. A low-frequency source would produce longer

wavelength sound waves. We say that for a given wave speed: λ ∝ 1

Also note that a source that has a specific frequency of vibration is able
to produce waves of different wavelengths, depending upon the medium
that carries the wave. We say that for a source of a given frequency: λ ∝ v.
The wave equation links the speed, frequency and wavelength of a wave:

v = f λ
where v is the speed of the wave in metres per second (m s1


f is the frequency of the wave in hertz (Hz)
λ is the wavelength of the wave in metres (m)

Worked example 15.1A

Since the human body is largely made of water, the average speed of sound in the body

is 1540 m s‑1

, close to the speed of sound in water. When using ultrasound, the smallest

item that can be detected is the same size as the wavelength of the sound wave used. If an

ultrasound frequency of 1 Mhz is used, what is the smallest foreign object that would be

noticeable by ultrasound?

Figure 15.3 the wavelength and amplitude of
a wave.




Direction of travel
of wave



chapter 15 Medical physics


a frequency of 1 Mhz = 1 × 106


the wavelength of a sound wave is given by:

λ = v

= 1540
1 × 106
= 1.54 × 10‑3


≈ 1.5 mm

therefore, the smallest sized object that can be detected is around 1.5 mm.

Sound waves within the human hearing range (20 Hz

to 20 kHz) travel at around 340 m s‑1

through air and

subsequently have wavelengths in the range 0.017–17 m.

Most everyday sounds, however, are between 50 and 3000 Hz.

Medical ultrasound typically uses frequencies ranging from

around 1 to 10 MHz (that is, 1 000 000 to 10 000 000 Hz).

These sound waves travel through body tissue much faster

than they would through air and will have wavelengths of

less than a few millimetres.

table 15.1 Speed of ultrasound in various media


Typical ultrasound velocity (m s1







Soft tissue










Sound waves, like other waves, display a property called
diffraction. Diffraction is the bending of the direction of
travel of a wave as it passes through an aperture or around

an obstacle. Diffraction is significant when the size of the

obstacles or apertures in the path of the sound wave is

similar to the sound’s wavelength. Since ultrasound utilises

waves with very short wavelengths, the internal parts of the

human body do not cause much diffraction. The ultrasound

waves can travel in reasonably direct paths through the

human body. Longer wavelengths, such as those of audible

sounds, would not be as directional in their paths through

the body, and so these wavelengths cannot be used to produce

diagnostic images.

Physics in action

the differences between ultrasound and everyday sound waves

producing ultrasound

In diagnostic ultrasound the sound waves are both generated and detected
by a small handheld probe (or transducer), which is moved around the
surface of the body. The term transducer means any device that converts
energy from one form into another. An ultrasound transducer converts
electrical energy into a sound wave and vice versa. Between bursts of
transmitted sound waves the transducer acts as a receiver, detecting the
reflected sound waves. Initially the sound waves must be able to travel
from the transducer into the body without much reflection at the skin’s
surface, so a coupling (or joining) gel is used between the transducer and
the patient’s skin.

In order to produce ultrasound, just as in the production of any sound
wave, a physical item must be made to vibrate. Within the transducer
varying electrical signals are applied to a disc made of special crystals that
produce the piezoelectric effect. This means that in response to a varying


Ultrasound interactions: attenuation
of sound


Detailed studies

electrical signal of a particular frequency, the disc undergoes mechanical
vibrations of the same frequency; that is, they produce sound. The trans-
ducer can also act as a receiver, since any returning sound waves will cause
the same disc to vibrate and produce a small varying electric signal voltage
that can be analysed.

The most common piezoelectric material in use in ultrasound transducers
is a synthetic ceramic called lead zirconate titanate (PZT). This ceramic
material can be made into discs of various shapes and thicknesses and so
transducers can be designed for specific diagnostic procedures.

the piezoelectric effect

Piezoelectric materials are materials whose electrical properties alter when
they are stressed; that is, when they are compressed or stretched. This is
due to the slight rearrangement of charges within the atomic struc ture of
the material. Piezoelectric materials have a crystal structure. Their atoms
are evenly arranged in a geometric lattice pattern with regular spacing
between them. The positive and negative ions are evenly distributed
throughout the lattice, making the material electrically neutral overall. A
disc of piezoelectric material can have a thin metal plate placed on each
side of it. These plates are called electrodes. If the material isn’t being
compressed or stretched, the surfaces of the piezoelectric disc will be
electrically neutral and there will be no potential difference (electrical
voltage) between the plates.

How sound waves are detected by piezoelectric transducers

A sound wave is made up of travelling regions of high and low pressure
in the medium that is carrying the sound wave. If a sound wave strikes
the surface of a metal plate (electrode) in the transducer, the piezoelectric
crystal layer (the disc) will be alternately compressed and stretched slightly.
The arriving high-pressure parts of the sound wave will compress the
piezoelectric material and the lower pressure regions of the sound wave
will cause the piezoelectric material to be stretched. (A low-pressure region
can be thought of as creating a slight suction effect just like a vacuum
cleaner creates.)

The compression of the piezoelectric crystal disc will result in a net
negative charge occurring close to one electrode, leaving the other plate
with a slight positive charge. Hence a potential difference exists across the
two electrodes. The stretching of the crystal layer (due to the arrival of a
low-pressure region of the sound wave) will result in a potential difference
across the plates of the opposite polarity. As the alternate high- and low-
pressure regions of the sound wave arrive at the transducer, an alternating
electrical signal is produced. This electrical signal is then amplified and
used to create a meaningful image on the sonographer’s computer screen.
Later in this section we will look at the aspects of the sound wave that will
produce different features in this image.

The PI…ZO…L…CTRIC …FF…CT occurs in certain crystals which, when placed under
stress, acquire equal and opposite charges on opposite faces. Hence an electrical
potential difference is established between the surfaces.

Figure 15.4 the transducer acts as both a source
and receiver of ultrasound waves.

The common whistle such as that used
by a sports umpire can be thought
of as a transducer. It converts the
kinetic energy of the blown air into
the mechanical vibration that is sound
energy. Therefore, dog whistles that
produce sounds of frequencies above
the audible limit of 20 000 Hz can be
called ultrasound transducers.

Physics file


chapter 15 Medical physics

How sound waves are produced by piezoelectric transducers

An electrical signal can be supplied to the transducer. If a small voltage
is applied across the electrodes of a piezoelectric transducer, the charges
in the atoms of the piezoelectric material will adjust their positions slightly.
This affects the overall volume that these atoms occupy. Therefore,
depending on the polarity of the applied voltage, the crystal disc will
either expand or contract.

The electrical supply needs to provide a small alternating voltage; that
is, an electrical voltage that periodically reverses in polarity. The application
of an alternating voltage to a piezoelectric transducer will cause the crystal
disc to alternately expand and contract. That is, it behaves as a vibrating
item and as such produces sound waves.

Ultrasound transducers can also be made from magnetostrictive mat-
erials. Magnetostrictive materials exhibit similar properties to piezo electric
materials. When sound waves strike, the material produces a varying mag-
netic field. When a varying magnetic field is supplied, the transducer will
oscillate, producing ultrasound waves.

Sound waves of maximum energy occur

if the frequency of the alternating

voltage matches the natural or

resonating frequency of the crystal

disc. Like guitar strings and pendulums

(and all physical objects) the crystal

disc within the transducer will have

specific natural frequencies at which

it can most readily vibrate. The values

of these natural frequencies depend

on the physical dimensions of the disc.

The fundamental or lowest resonant

frequency of a piezoelectric transducer

will be designed to lie between 1 MHz

(1 megahertz) and 15 MHz.

Physics file

Figure 15.5 the pulsating crystal material will produce alternate high‑ and low‑pressure regions
in the adjacent medium. hence a sound wave is produced.

electrode plate

electrode plate

electrode plate

electrode plate






Detailed studies

1 Define the following terms: period, frequency, wave-
length and amplitude of a wave.

2 a Identify the source of the sound wave in each of
the following situations:

i an opera singer holding a note

ii a smoke detector alarm ringing

iii the mating call of a male cicada.

b What characteristic do all sources of sound have
in common?

3 State and briefly describe the two main categories of
use of ultrasound in medicine.

4 Use the speeds of sound shown in Table 15.1 to
calculate the wavelength of an ultrasound wave of
frequency 2.5 MHz that is travelling in:

a soft body tissue

b the brain

c fat

d blood.

5 When a sound wave strikes the boundary between
media of different density, what might happen to the
sound energy?

6 Which pair of substances found in the human body
(as listed in Table 15.1) would produce the greatest
amount of reflection of ultrasound waves at their

7 What is the longest wavelength of a sound (in air)
that could be classified as ultrasound?

8 Explain how the piezoelectric effect enables a
transducer to pick up sound waves.

9 How is the motion of a piezoelectric source different
from an ordinary source of sound waves?

10 If only items that are longer than around five wave-
lengths can be imaged by ultrasound, how large
is the smallest object that could be detected in soft
body tissue, using ultrasound of frequency 4.5 MHz?
The velocity of sound in soft tissue is 1540 m s‑1

• Sound waves with frequencies above 20 000 Hz are

called ultrasound.

• Sound waves are longitudinal waves that involve

vibrations of particles parallel to the direction of
travel of the energy.

• The wavelength, frequency, period and amplitude

are features of a wave.

• v = f λ where v is the speed of the wave in metres
per second (m s‑1

), f is the frequency of the wave in

hertz (Hz), and λ is the wavelength of the wave in
metres (m).

• In diagnostic ultrasound the sound waves are both

generated and detected by a small handheld probe
(or transducer).

• In response to sound waves, the transducer produces

an alternating electrical signal due to the piezoelectric

15.1 questions

Ultrasound and how it is made

15.1 summary

Ultrasound and how it is made


chapter 15 Medical physics

Measuring sound energy

Sound waves deliver energy in a continuous stream, rather than discrete
bundles, so it is convenient to think of sound waves in terms of the number
of joules of energy delivered per second. Since the concept of ‘energy per
second’ really is a measurement of power, the unit of the watt is employed
(1 watt = 1 joule per second). Sound waves carry energy through a medium
and so the amount of energy passing through a square metre area each
second is called the intensity of the sound wave. Intensity is therefore
the power (in watts) passing through a square metre of area. The unit of
intensity is watts per square metre (W m‑2


In medical applications of ultrasound the potentially destructive effects
of very intense ultrasound waves (discussed later) limit the allowable
intensities of sound waves.

Physics in action

amplitude, intensity and the decibel scale

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