Nanoparticle could peek inside cells or ferret out chemicals using sound waves.

Ultrasonics have many uses in an array of industries. In medicine, ultrasound is used to peek at babies to measure their development, or to detect and sometimes destroy various types of crystalline “stones” in organs. In manufacturing, ultrasonics can pinpoint microscopic stress fractures that may introduce flaws or weaknesses to a structure, or accurately measure surface and sub-surface topographies.

Various ultrasound machine refinements have come across the DailyTech desks in the past, but a new type of device may herald a new approach to ultrasonic devices as well as dramatically expand their uses. Researchers at the University of Nottingham have created not a machine, but nanoscale particles capable of acting as transducers. Along with the amazingly small size of the multilayer particle, the simplicity of the system is also quite surprising.

The particles, which are constructed as a sandwich of materials to give them both optical and ultrasonic resonances, can presently be made as small as around 100 nanometers – about 1/500th the width of a human hair. Laser light is used to induce ultrasonic vibration in the particles, which sends out sound waves into the surrounding environment. The waves reflected back to the particle slightly deform it, changing its optical properties. This change is then measured by the laser and could be used to look at the area around the particle in the same way that modern ultrasound machines use sound itself to produce a picture.

The particles’ future will not be that of simple ultrasound machines though, explains Dr. Matt Clark of Nottingham’s Applied Optics Group in a University of Nottingham press release. “In addition the transducers can be made into highly sensitive chemical sensors — ultrasonics SAW sensors are used on the normal scale for electronic noses — this would allow you to distribute chemical sensors in tissue or in paint — so you could make paint with chemical sensors to detect corrosion or explosives in it.”

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