What is a Scanning Acoustic Microscope?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 12 December 2019
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A scanning acoustic microscope is a microscope which uses sound to explore the properties of an object under investigation. The device is usually designed to generate an image, using sound waves, which can provide detailed data about the inside of something being studied. Like other microscopes, a scanning acoustic microscope is capable of examining things on a level not available to the average human eye, and can be used for things like imaging individual cells.

The human eye is sensitized to a very specific area of the electromagnetic spectrum which is said to comprise “visible light,” because it is visible to the eye. Other areas of the spectrum can also provide information about objects and the environment, which is where the scanning acoustic microscope comes in. The device can “see” with sound, a capacity not available to humans, although some animals have been known to utilize sound in tasks such as navigating, finding prey, and exploring the environment.

This device works by aiming a focused beam of sound at an object on the microscope stage, and recording the way in which the sound waves interact with the object. A couplant such as water is usually used to make sure that the transmission of sound is even. This is repeated a number of times until a complete scan of the object has been completed. Some scanning acoustic microscopes may also include visual microscopy components which can be used to look at the object.


Early conceptualization of the scanning acoustic microscope dates back to the 1940s, when people were starting to explore more applications for sound. By the 1970s, basic scanning acoustic microscopes were being made, and the technology is constantly being improved by companies which specialize in microscopy products. Manufacturers may offer sales and leases to their customers to meet the needs of customers who may not be ready to purchase. It is also sometimes possible to book time on a scanning electron microscope in a lab which allows guests.

One use for a scanning acoustic microscope is in nondestructive evaluation of machined parts and other products. The device can be used to look for cracks, delamination, and other flaws which cannot be identified by other means, all without causing damage to the object being studied. Scanning acoustic microscopes are also used in the manufacture of extremely small components, in quality control, and in failure analysis studies. They are also useful in the field of biology, where their detailed and precise imaging can be used to learn more about the structure of organisms, cells, and various natural phenomena.


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