July 8, 2015

Bats do it, dolphins do it. Now humans can do it, too.

(July 8, 2015)  University of California, Berkeley, physicists have used graphene to build lightweight ultrasonic loudspeakers and microphones, enabling people to mimic bats or dolphins’ ability to use sound to communicate and gauge the distance and speed of objects around them.

More practically, the wireless ultrasound devices complement standard radio transmission using electromagnetic waves in areas where radio is impractical, such as underwater, but with far greater fidelity than current ultrasound or sonar devices. They can also be used to communicate through objects, such as steel, that electromagnetic waves can’t penetrate.

“Sea mammals and bats use high-frequency sound for echolocation and communication, but humans just haven’t fully exploited that before, in my opinion, because the technology has not been there,” said UC Berkeley physicist Alex Zettl. “Until now, we have not had good wideband ultrasound transmitters or receivers. These new devices are a technology opportunity.”

Speakers and microphones both use diaphragms, typically made of paper or plastic, that vibrate to produce or detect sound, respectively. The diaphragms in the new devices are graphene sheets a mere one atom thick that have the right combination of stiffness, strength and light weight to respond to frequencies ranging from subsonic (below 20 hertz) to ultrasonic (above 20 kilohertz). Humans can hear from 20 hertz up to 20,000 hertz, whereas bats hear only in the kilohertz range, from 9 to 200 kilohertz. The grapheme loudspeakers and microphones operate from well below 20 hertz to over 500 kilohertz.

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