The conversion of electrical pulses to mechanical vibrations and the conversion of returned mechanical vibrations back into electrical energy is the basis for ultrasonic testing. The active element is the heart of the transducer as it converts the electrical energy to acoustic energy, and vice versa. The active element is basically a piece of polarized material (i.e. some parts of the molecule are positively charged, while other parts of the molecule are negatively charged) with electrodes attached to two of its opposite faces.
When an electric field is applied across the material, the polarized molecules will align themselves with the electric field, resulting in induced dipoles within the molecular or crystal structure of the material. This alignment of molecules will cause the material to change dimensions. This phenomenon is known as electrostriction. In addition, a permanently-polarized material such as quartz (SiO2) or barium titanate (BaTiO3) will produce an electric field when the material changes dimensions as a result of an imposed mechanical force. This phenomenon is known as the piezoelectric effect.
The active element of most acoustic transducers used today is a piezoelectric ceramic, which can be cut in various ways to produce different wave modes. A large piezoelectric ceramic element can be seen in the image of a sectioned low frequency transducer. Preceding the advent of piezoelectric ceramics in the early 1950’s, piezoelectric crystals made from quartz crystals and magnetostrictive materials were primarily used. The active element is still sometimes referred to as the crystal by old timers in the NDT field.
When piezoelectric ceramics were introduced, they soon became the dominant material for transducers due to their good piezoelectric properties and their ease of manufacture into a variety of shapes and sizes. They also operate at low voltage and are usable up to about 300oC. The first piezoceramic in general use was barium titanate, and that was followed during the 1960’s by lead zirconate titanate compositions, which are now the most commonly employed ceramic for making transducers. New materials such as piezo-polymers and composites are also being used in some applications.
The thickness of the active element is determined by the desired frequency of the transducer. A thin wafer element vibrates with a wavelength that is twice its thickness. Therefore, piezoelectric crystals are cut to a thickness that is 1/2 the desired radiated wavelength. The higher the frequency of the transducer, the thinner the active element. The primary reason that high frequency contact transducers are not produced is because the element is very thin and too fragile.