Acoustic Emission

Acoustic Emission


Acoustic Emission (AE) refers to the generation of transient elastic waves produced by a sudden redistribution of stress in a material. When a structure is subjected to an external stimulus (change in pressure, load, or temperature), localized sources trigger the release of energy, in the form of stress waves, which propagate to the surface and are recorded by sensors. With the right equipment and setup, motions on the order of picometers (10 -12 m) can be identified. Sources of AE vary from natural events like earthquakes and rockbursts to the initiation and growth of cracks, slip and dislocation movements, melting, twinning, and phase transformations in metals. In composites, matrix cracking and fiber breakage and debonding contribute to acoustic emissions. AE’s have also been measured and recorded in polymers, wood, and concrete, among other materials.

Detection and analysis of AE signals can supply valuable information regarding the origin and importance of a discontinuity in a material. Because of the versatility of Acoustic Emission Testing (AET), it has many industrial applications (e.g. assessing structural integrity, detecting flaws, testing for leaks, or monitoring weld quality) and is used extensively as a research tool.

Acoustic Emission is unlike most other nondestructive testing (NDT) techniques in two regards. The first difference pertains to the origin of the signal. Instead of supplying energy to the object under examination, AET simply listens for the energy released by the object. AE tests are often performed on structures while in operation, as this provides adequate loading for propagating defects and triggering acoustic emissions.

The second difference is that AET deals with dynamic processes, or changes, in a material. This is particularly meaningful because only active features (e.g. crack growth) are highlighted. The ability to discern between developing and stagnant defects is significant. However, it is possible for flaws to go undetected altogether if the loading is not high enough to cause an acoustic event. Furthermore, AE testing usually provides an immediate indication relating to the strength or risk of failure of a component. Other advantages of AET include fast and complete volumetric inspection using multiple sensors, permanent sensor mounting for process control, and no need to disassemble and clean a specimen.

Unfortunately, AE systems can only qualitatively gauge how much damage is contained in a structure. In order to obtain quantitative results about size, depth, and overall acceptability of a part, other NDT methods (often ultrasonic testing) are necessary. Another drawback of AE stems from loud service environments which contribute extraneous noise to the signals. For successful applications, signal discrimination and noise reduction are crucial


Weld monitoring

During the welding process, temperature changes induce stresses between the weld and the base metal. These stresses are often relieved by heat treating the weld.  However, in some cases tempering the weld is not possible and minor cracking occurs. Amazingly, cracking can continue for up to 10 days after the weld has been completed. Using stainless steel welds with known inclusions and accelerometers for detection purposes and background noise monitoring, it was found by W. D. Jolly (1969) that low level signals and more sizeable bursts were related to the growth of micro fissures and larger cracks respectively. ASTM E 749-96 is a standard practice of AE monitoring of continuous welding.

Gas Trailer Tubes

Acoustic emission testing on pressurized jumbo tube trailers was authorized by the Department of Transportation in 1983. Instead of using hydrostatic retesting, where tubes must be removed from service and disassembled, AET allows for in situ testing. A 10% over-pressurization  is performed at a normal filling station with AE sensors attached to the tubes at each end.  A multichannel acoustic system is used to detection and mapped source locations.  Suspect locations are further evaluated using ultrasonic inspection, and when defects are confirmed the tube is removed from use.  AET can detect subcritical flaws whereas hydrostatic testing cannot detect cracks until they cause rupture of the tube. Because of the high stresses in the circumferential direction of the tubes, tests are geared toward finding longitudinal fatigue cracks.


Bridges contain many welds, joints and connections, and a combination of load and environmental factors heavily influence damage mechanisms such as fatigue cracking and metal thinning due to corrosion.  Bridges receive a visual inspection about every two years and when damage is detected, the bridge is either shut down, its weight capacity is lowered, or it is singled out for more frequent monitoring.  Acoustic Emission is increasingly being used for bridge monitoring applications because it can continuously gather data and detect changes that may be due to damage without requiring lane closures or bridge shutdown. In fact, traffic flow is commonly used to load or stress the bridge for the AE testing.

Aerospace Structures

Most aerospace structures consist of complex assemblies of components that have been design to carry significant loads while being as light as possible.  This combination of requirements leads to many parts that can tolerate only a minor amount of damage before failing.  This fact makes detection of damage extremely important but components are often packed tightly together making access for inspections difficult.  AET has found applications in monitoring the health of aerospace structures because sensors can be attached in easily accessed areas that are remotely located from damage prone sites.  AET has been used in laboratory structural tests, as well as in flight test applications.  NASA's Wing Leading Edge Impact Detection System is partially based on AE technology.  The image to the right shows a technician applying AE transducers on the inside of the Space Shuttle Discovery wing structure.  The impact detection system was developed to alert NASA officials to events such as the sprayed-on-foam insulation impact that damaged the Space Shuttle Columbia's wing leading edge during launch and lead to its breakup on reentry to the Earth's atmosphere.