Acoustic emission (AE) is the phenomenon of radiation of acoustic (elastic) waves in solids that occurs when a material undergoes irreversible changes in its internal structure, for example as a result of crack formation or plastic deformation due to aging, temperature gradients or external mechanical forces. In particular, AE is occurring during the processes of mechanical loading of materials and structures accompanied by structural changes that generate local sources of elastic waves. This results in small surface displacements of a material produced by elastic or stress waves generated when the accumulated elastic energy in a material or on its surface is released rapidly. The waves generated by sources of AE are of practical interest in structural health monitoring (SHM), quality control, system feedback, process monitoring and other fields. In SHM applications, AE is typically used to detect, locate and characterise damage.
The application of acoustic emission to non-destructive testing of materials typically takes place between 100 kHz and 1 MHz. Unlike conventional ultrasonic testing, AE tools are designed for monitoring acoustic emissions produced by the material during failure or stress, and not on the material's effect on externally generated waves. Part failure can be documented during unattended monitoring. The monitoring of the level of AE activity during multiple load cycles forms the basis for many AE safety inspection methods, that allow the parts undergoing inspection to remain in service.
The technique is used, for example, to study the formation of cracks during the welding process, as opposed to locating them after the weld has been formed with the more familiar ultrasonic testing technique. In a material under active stress, such as some components of an airplane during flight, transducers mounted in an area can detect the formation of a crack at the moment it begins propagating. A group of transducers can be used to record signals, then locate the precise area of their origin by measuring the time for the sound to reach different transducers. The technique is also valuable for detecting cracks forming in pressure vessels and pipelines transporting liquids under high pressures. Also, this technique is used for estimation of corrosion in reinforced concrete structures.
In addition to non-destructive testing, acoustic emission monitoring has applications in process monitoring. Applications where acoustic emission monitoring has successfully been used include detecting anomalies in fluidized beds, and end points in batch granulation.
Standards for the use of acoustic emission for non-destructive testing of pressure vessels have been developed by the ASME, ISO and the European Community.