Surface acoustic wave sensor

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Surface acoustic wave sensors are a class of microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) which rely on the modulation of surface acoustic waves to sense a physical phenomenon. The sensor transduces an input electrical signal into a mechanical wave which, unlike an electrical signal, can be easily influenced by physical phenomena. The device then transduces this wave back into an electrical signal. Changes in amplitude, phase, frequency, or time-delay between the input and output electrical signals can be used to measure the presence of the desired phenomenon.

Device Layout[edit]

Surface Acoustic Wave Sensor Interdigitated Transducer Diagram

The basic surface acoustic wave device consists of a piezoelectric substrate, an input interdigitated transducer (IDT) on one side of the surface of the substrate, and a second, output interdigitated transducer on the other side of the substrate. The space between the IDTs, across which the surface acoustic wave will propagate, is known as the delay-line. This region is called the delay line because the signal, which is a mechanical wave at this point, moves much slower than its electromagnetic form, thus causing an appreciable delay.

Device Operation[edit]

Surface acoustic wave technology takes advantage of the piezoelectric effect in its operation. Most modern surface acoustic wave sensors use an input interdigitated transducer (IDT) to convert an electrical signal into an acoustic wave.

The sinusoidal electrical input signal creates alternating polarity between the fingers of the interdigitated transducer. Between two adjacent sets of fingers, polarity of the fingers will be switched (e.g. + - +). As a result, the direction of the electric field between two fingers will alternate between adjacent sets of fingers. This creates alternating regions of tensile and compressive strain between fingers of the electrode by the piezoelectric effect, producing a mechanical wave at the surface known as a surface acoustic wave. As fingers on the same side of the device will be at the same level of compression or tension, the space between them---known as the pitch---is the wavelength of the mechanical wave. We can express the synchronous frequency f0 of the device with phase velocity vp and pitch p as:

The synchronous frequency is the natural frequency at which mechanical waves should propagate. Ideally, the input electric signal should be at the synchronous frequency to minimize insertion loss.

As the mechanical wave will propagate in both directions from the input IDT, half of the energy of the waveform will propagate across the delay line in the direction of the output IDT. In some devices, a mechanical absorber or reflector is added between the IDTs and the edges of the substrate to prevent interference patterns or reduce insertion losses, respectively.

The acoustic wave travels across the surface of the device substrate to the other interdigitated transducer, converting the wave back into an electric signal by the piezoelectric effect. Any changes that were made to the mechanical wave will be reflected in the output electric signal. As the characteristics of the surface acoustic wave can be modified by changes in the surface properties of the device substrate, sensors can be designed to quantify any phenomenon which alters these properties. Typically, this is accomplished by the addition of mass to the surface or changing the length of the substrate and the spacing between the fingers.

Inherent Functionality[edit]

The structure of the basic surface acoustic wave sensor allows for the phenomena of pressure, strain, torque, temperature, and mass to be sensed. The mechanisms for this are discussed below:

Pressure, Strain, Torque, Temperature[edit]

The phenomena of pressure, strain, torque, temperature, and mass can be sensed by the basic device, consisting of two IDTs separated by some distance on the surface of a piezoelectric substrate. These phenomena can all cause a change in length along the surface of the device. A change in length will affect both the spacing between the interdigitated electrodes---altering the pitch---and the spacing between IDTs---altering the delay. This can be sensed as a phase-shift, frequency-shift, or time-delay in the output electrical signal.

When a diaphragm is placed between the environment at a variable pressure and a reference cavity at a fixed pressure, the diaphragm will bend in response to a pressure differential. As the diaphragm bends, the distance along the surface in compression will increase. A surface acoustic wave pressure sensor simply replaces the diaphragm with a piezoelectric substrate patterned with interdigitated electrodes. Strain and torque work in a similar manner, as application to the sensor will cause a deformation of the piezoelectric substrate. A surface acoustic wave temperature sensor can be fashioned from a piezoelectric substrate with a relatively high coefficient of thermal expansion in the direction of the length of the device.


The accumulation of mass on the surface of an acoustic wave sensor will affect the surface acoustic wave as it travels across the delay line. The velocity v of a wave traveling through a solid is proportional to the square root of product of the Young’s modulus E and the density of the material.

Therefore, the wave velocity will decrease with added mass. This change can be measured by a change in time-delay or phase-shift between input and output signals. Signal attenuation could be measured as well, as the coupling with the additional surface mass will reduce the wave energy. In the case of mass-sensing, as the change in the signal will always be due to an increase in mass from a reference signal of zero additional mass, signal attenuation can be effectively used.

Extended Functionality[edit]

The inherent functionality of a surface acoustic wave sensor can be extended by the deposition of a thin film of material across the delay line which is sensitive to the physical phenomena of interest. If a physical phenomenon causes a change in length or mass in the deposited thin film, the surface acoustic wave will be affected by the mechanisms mentioned above. Some extended functionality examples are listed below:

Chemical Vapors[edit]

Chemical vapor sensors use the application of a thin film polymer across the delay line which selectively absorbs the gas or gases of interest. An array of such sensors with different polymeric coatings can be used to sense a large range of gases on a single sensor with resolution down to parts per trillion, allowing for the creation of a sensitive "lab on a chip."

Biological Matter[edit]

A biologically-active layer can be placed between the interdigitated electrodes which contains immobilized antibodies. If the corresponding antigen is present in a sample, the antigen will bind to the antibodies, causing a mass-loading on the device. These sensors can be used to detect bacteria and viruses in samples, as well as to quantify the presence of certain mRNA and proteins.


Surface acoustic wave humidity sensors require a thermoelectric cooler in addition to a surface acoustic wave device. The thermoelectric cooler is placed below the surface acoustic wave device. Both are housed in a cavity with an inlet and outlet for gases. By cooling the device, water vapor will tend to condense on the surface of the device, causing a mass-loading.

Ultraviolet Radiation[edit]

Surface acoustic wave devices can be made sensitive to optical wavelengths through the phenomena known as acoustic charge transport (ACT), which involves the interaction between a surface acoustic wave and photogenerated charge carriers from a photoconducting layer. Ultraviolet radiation sensors employ the use of a thin film layer of zinc oxide across the delay line. When exposed to ultraviolet radiation, zinc oxide generates charge carriers which interact with the electric fields produced in the piezoelectric substrate by the traveling surface acoustic wave.[1] This interaction decreases the velocity and the amplitude of the signal.

Magnetic Fields[edit]

Ferromagnetic materials, such as iron, nickel, and cobalt, exhibit a characteristic called magnetostriction, where the Young's modulus of the material is dependent on magnetic field strength. If a constant stress is maintained on such a material, the strain will change with a changing Young's modulus. If such a material is deposited in the delay line of a surface acoustic wave sensor, a change in length of the deposited film will stress the underlying substrate. This stress will result in a strain on the surface of the substrate, affecting the phase velocity, phase-shift, and time-delay of the signal.


Surface acoustic wave devices can be used to measure changes in viscosity of a liquid placed upon it. As the liquid becomes more viscous the resonant frequency of the device will change in correspondence. A network analyser is needed to view the resonant frequency.

External links and references[edit]


  1. ^ Kumar, Sanjeev, Gil-Ho Kim, K. Sreenivas, and R. P. Tandon. ZnO Based Surface Acoustic Wave Ultraviolet Photo Sensor Journal of Electroceramics 22.1-3 (2009): 198-202.