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History of Ultrasonics

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Prior to world war II, sonar, the technique of sending sound waves through water and observing the returning echoes to characterize submerged objects, inspired early ultrasound investigators to explore ways to apply the concept to medical diagnosis. In 1929 and 1935, Sokolov studied the use of ultrasonic waves in detecting metal objects. Mulhauser, in 1931, obtained a patent for using ultrasonic waves, using two transducers to detect flaws in solids. Firestone (1940) and Simons (1945) developed pulsed ultrasonic testing using a pulse-echo technique.

Shortly after the close of world war II, researchers in Japan began to explore the medical diagnostic capabilities of ultrasound. The first ultrasonic instruments used an A-mode presentation with blips on an oscilloscope screen. That was followed by a B-mode presentation with a two dimensional, gray scale image.

Japan’s work in ultrasound was relatively unknown in the United States and Europe untill the 1950s. Researchers then presented their findings on the use of ultrasound to detect gallstones, breast masses, and tumors to the international medical community. Japan was also the first country to apply Doppler ultrasound, an application of ultrasound that detects internal moving objects such as blood coursing through the heart for cardiovascular investigation.

Ultrasound pioneers working in the United States contributed many innovations and important discoveries to the field during the following decades. Researchers learned to use ultrasound to detect potential cancer and to visualize tumors in living subjects and in excised tissue. Real-time imaging, another significant diagnostic fool for physicians, presented ultrasound images directly on the system’s CRT screen at the time of scanning. The introduction of spectral Doppler and later color Doppler depicted bood flow in various colors to indicate the speed and direction of the flow.

The United States also produced the earliest hand held “contact” scanner for clinical use, the second generation of B-mode equipment, and the prototype for the first articulated-arm hand held scanner, with 2-D images.

Beginnings of Nondestructive Evaluation (NDE)

Nondestructive testing has been practiced for many decades, with initial rapid developments in instrumentation spurred by the technological advances that occurred during World War II and the detection of defects. As a part of “safe life” design, it was intended that a structure should not develop macroscopic defects during its life, with the detection of such defects being a cause for removal of the component from service. In response to this need, increasingly sophisticated techniques using ultrasonics, eddy currents, x-rays, dye penetrants, magnetic particles, and other forms in interrogating energy emerged.

In the early 1970’s two events occurred which caused a major change in the NDT field. First, improvements in the technology led to the ability to detect small flaws, which caused more parts to be rejected even though the probability of component failure had not changed. However, the discipline of fracture mechanics emerged, which enabled one to predict whether a crack of a given size will fail under a particular load when a material’s fracture toughness properties are known. Other laws were developed to predict the growth rate of cracks under cyclic loading (fatigue). With the advent of these tools, it became possible to accept structures containing defects if the sizes of those defects were known. This formed the basis for the new philosophy of “damage tolerant” design. Components having known defects could continue in service as long as it could be established that those defects would not grow to a critical, failure producing size. A new challenge was thus presented to the nondestructive testing community. Detection was not enough. One needed to also obtain quantitative information about flaw size to serve as an input to fracture mechanics based predictions of remaining life. The need for quantitative information was particularly strongly in the defense and nuclear power industries and led to the emergence of quantitative nondestructive evaluation (QNDE) as a new engineering/research discipline. A number of research programs around the world were started, such as the center for nondestructive evaluation at Iowa State University (growing out of a major research effort at the Rockwell International Science Center); the Electric Power Reserach Institute in Charlotte, North Carolina; the Fraunhofer Institute for Nondestructive Testing in Saarbrucken, Germany; and the Nondestructive Testing Centre in Harwel, England.

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