Sonar and ultrasound devices receive boost of energy

University of Arkansas researchers have found that the energy of piezoelectric compounds can be optimised ten-fold when they pass through a certain state. The development could lead to improved ultrasound and sonar equipment.

University of Arkansas researchers have found a novel physical effect of systems used in ultrasound and sonar that is ten times stronger than current methods used in these techniques.

This large ratio of physical change to electric effect may be used one day to create more sensitive and more portable sonar devices and medical ultrasound equipment.

‘This finding means we can drastically improve the response of devices,’ which will help advance sonar and ultrasound used in both the military and medical fields, said Laurent Bellaiche, assistant professor of physics.

The scientists used computer models to study the properties of piezoelectric compounds, crystals that change shape when encountering an electric field, or create an electric field when they change shape.

Some piezoelectric systems form crystals with two different types of atoms distributed throughout. Bellaiche and his colleagues sought to find out if they could guide the atomic arrangement of such crystals by placing the two different atoms in layers rather than randomly.

They selected a structure with the amount of Scandium and Niobium (Sc and Nb) atoms inside each layer as the variables, and created a model, using molecular beam epitaxy, that could calculate the amounts of the two atoms.

Scandium has a charge of +3, Niobium a charge of +5. By changing the ratio of the atoms inside each layer, the researchers create strong internal electric fields in different directions, causing the crystal to change structural phases.

Some ratios are said to have created an electrical polarisation in one direction, creating a rhombohedral phase, while others switched the direction of polarisation and created another phase, called an orthorhombic phase, an effect not seen before.

Furthermore, in between the two polarised phases, the researchers discovered a large piezoelectric response that is ten times larger than responses currently used commercially.

‘It’s a new fundamental structural property,’ Bellaiche said.

The large piezoelectric response represents the process of changing shape, and it is at this point that a small electrical pulse can produce the largest change.

The researchers performed most of their computations at a temperature of 20 K, but the same result can be found at any temperature.

‘At any range you can have a structure that will give you a huge response,’ Bellaiche said. Changing the temperature will just mean the large effect will take place with a different ratio of the two atoms.