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Acoustic impedance

When an ultrasonic pulse enters the body it is reflected from the boundary between different types of tissue. The ease with which an ultrasonic pulse can travel through a material depends on a property of the material called acoustic impedance (Z). This is defined as:

Acoustic impedance (Z) = density of material (ρ x speed of sound in the material (v)

The units for acoustic impedance are kgm-2s-1 and values for the acoustic impedance of some materials are given in the following table:

Material Density
Speed of sound
Acoustic impedance
Air 1.3 330 0.000429
Water 1000 1450 1.50
Bone (average) 1500 4000 6.00
Blood 1060 1570 1.59
Muscle (average) 1075 1590 1.70
Soft tissue (average) 1050 1500 1.58
Fat 925 1450 1.38

The greater the difference between the acoustic impedances of the two materials at a boundary in the body the greater the amount of reflection – two materials with the same acoustic impedance would give no reflection (or refraction) while two with widely separated values would give much larger reflections.

The ratio of the reflected intensity Ir to the incident intensity (Io) is given by:

Ir/Io = (Z2 – Z1)2/(Z2+Z1)2

For example a boundary between fat and muscle would give 1% reflection while that between fat and air would give almost 100% reflection. Hence the need for a coupling gel between the transducer and the skin.


© Keith Gibbs