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'Orca ears' inspire Stanford researchers to develop ultrasensitive undersea microphone
Date:6/23/2011

For most people, listening to the ocean means contemplating the soothing sound of waves breaking gently on a sandy beach.

But for researchers studying everything from whale migration to fisheries populations, and from underwater mapping to guiding robots trying to repair leaking undersea oil wells, listening to the ocean from the other side underwater can reveal volumes of valuable data.

Stanford researchers have developed a highly sensitive underwater microphone that can capture the whole range of ocean sounds, from the equivalent of a soft whisper in a library to an explosion of a ton of TNT just 60 feet away a range of approximately 160 decibels and do so accurately at any depth, no matter how crushing the pressure. It also can hear sound frequencies across a span of 17 octaves, spanning pitches far higher than the whine of a mosquito and far lower than a rumbling foghorn.

Existing underwater microphones called hydrophones have much more limited ranges of sensitivity and do not perform well at depth, where the ambient pressure can be extremely large, making it difficult to detect faint sounds.

Sonar using sound to locate and map is critical to underwater communication and exploration, because radio signals can travel only a centimeter or two before they dissipate in seawater and light can't penetrate the depths below about 100 meters.

In approaching the challenge of designing the new hydrophone, the researchers first examined some existing listening devices that work well underwater the ears of marine mammals, particularly orcas.

"Orcas had millions of years to optimize their sonar and it shows," said Onur Kilic, a postdoctoral researcher in electrical engineering. "They can sense sounds over a tremendous range of frequencies and that was what we wanted to do."

Kilic is the lead author of a paper about the research published in the Journal of the Acoustic Society of America earlie
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Contact: Louis Bergeron
louisb3@stanford.edu
650-725-1944
Stanford University
Source:Eurekalert

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