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In classical mechanics, when a free body is acted upon by an external force, the whole body
is assumed to be affected by the force immediately, and moves with an acceleration, given by
Newton's Second Law (F = ma). Clearly, this is a simplification , since it is impossible for the
message that a load has been applied to travel throughout the body instantaneously, but it is
usually OK for the types of forces typically encountered in everyday civil engineering.

This may however, be a gross oversimplification when a structure is subjected to a rapidly

changing load, such as that caused by an impact or explosion. In these cases, part of the
structure close to the point of application of the load can be highly stressed, while a more
distant area is still unaware of any loading having occurred. The message that loading has
occurred is carried from the point of application to other parts of the structure by stress waves
and the purpose of this lecture is to take a look at some simple properties and uses of elastic
stress waves.


Consider a rapidly changing (or transient) force being applied axially, to the end of a long
thin homogenous straight bar (fig 1)
Force (F)

Time = (t)

Fig 1 - Transient Force Applied to the End of a Straight Bar

Initially, the force is applied to the particles at the very end of the bar. These displace by a
tiny amount and hence disturb the next particles, etc., propagating a stress wave along the bar
Each particle moves only a tiny amount, as the pulse passes (e.g., if a lump of steel travelling
at 10 m/s impacts a long steel rod, the particle displacement caused by the passage of the
stress wave in the rod will be of the order of 0.4 mm), but, as we shall prove shortly, the stress
wave itself travels from particle to particle at very high speed.

2.1 Elastic Stress Wave Velocity

Now consider an element (AB) of the bar, cross-sectional area (A o) length dx, at a distance
x from the front of the bar. As the stress wave passes, the element is displaced axially, changes
in length and becomes stressed (figure 2). Remember that we are talking about very rapidly
changing loads and deformations, so each side of the element may deform at a different rate.
Thus, if face A of the element is diplaced by a distance u (measuring displacement in the
direction of the wave as positive), and we define axial strain as the change of displacement over

the length of the element (tensile strain as positive), then the situation as the wave passes
over the element is as shown in figure 2.

x dx

A' B'

u u + du/dx . dx
Figure 2 - Displacement of Element of Bar by Passage of Stress Wave

The element is displaced to the right and changes its length due to the passage of the stress
pulse. The new length of the element is

u u
dx u .dx u dx .dx
x x

So the axial strain in the element is given by the new length, minus the original length/ all
divided by the original length, so:

( dx .dx) dx
x u
dx x
as we had defined it abave.

Assuming that the element remains elastic, the stress in the element is simply:

x E. x (1)
x E.

The net axial force on AB is the force acting on face B, minus that acting on A:
( x dx) A0 x A0
.dx. A0

The mass of the element is ( A0dx ) while the axial acceleration is .

t 2

So, by Newtons Second Law (F=ma), we have:

x 2u
dx. A Adx 2
x t

and, by substitution from eqn. 1:

2u E 2u (2)

t 2 x 2

This is a well know type of equation in physics, called the wave equation, and it can be
shown that it describes the motion of a wave passing through a body with velocity C0 , where:

E (3)
embed Equation C0

This is the velocity of an elastic wave travelling along a the rod under investigation.

(As an example of the magnitude of elastic waves, take mild steel, E 200 x109 N / m2 ,
200 x109
8000 kg / m3 gives C0 5000m / s!! ).

2.2 Relation between Particle Velocity and Stress

It is very important to note that, as stress wave is passed by particles in the body nudging
each other along by small distances only. Thus, although a stress wave may move through a
body at a tremendous velocity, the actual velocity imparted to the particles in the body by the
stress wave is typically very small.

A direct correlation can be obtained, between the velocity of the displaced particles as a
stress pulse passes, and the magnitude of the stress, as shown below:

From eqn. 1:

x E.

and from eqn 3:

E C0

Note: Strictly, the acceleration varies over the element and should be taken as the average of the second
2u 2 u
2 (u .dx)
derivatives w.r.t. time of the displacements at A and B, t 2
t x but the term
d 2 u
( .dx ) is negligible in the limit when dx is infinitesimally small.)
dt 2 x


u (4)
embed Equation embed Equation x C0 E. .

The stress wave velocity C0 is, of course, the speed at which the wave passes along the bar:

embed Equation embed Equation C0
and substituting back into eqn. 4:

dx u u
x E. . . E. .
embed Equation embed Equation dt x t

But, is the particle velocity, v , so:

embed Equation embed Equation x E . . v . C0 . v (5)

Since, both embed Equation embed Equation & C0 are constants (or at least, very nearly
so for solids at elastic strain levels), there is a linear relation between magnitude of the axial
stress and the velocity imparted to the particles in the body as the stress wave passes over

Equation 5 bears some resemblance to Ohm's law, with the stress and particle velocity
corresponding to the voltage and current in a circuit. In this analogy, the productembed
Equation embed Equation .C0 , corresponds to resistance, and is known as the acoustic
impedance of the body through which the stress wave is passing.

Acoustic Impedance (I) = Co

2.3 Reflections of One-Dimensional Stress Waves at Boundaries

The behaviour of a stress wave in a bar which strikes a discontinuity can be determined by
considering equilibrium of forces and compatibility of particle velocities on either side of the

Consider a bar, which at some point changes in point cross-sectional area and material (fig

Figure 3 - Stress Wave Impinging on a Discontinuity

We assume that when the incident stress wave ( I ) is split into two parts when it hits the
discontinuity: a reflected wave ( R ) which passes back into the first part of the bar, and a
transmitted wave ( T ) which propagates into the second part.

For equilibrium of forces at the boundary:

A1 I R A2 T (6)

A1 R
T 1 I
A2 I

and for compatibility of particle velocities:

vI vR vT (7)

vR v
1 T
vI vI

but, since ( v and the reflected and incident waves are on the same side of the
discontinuity and there have the same density and wave speed values,)

R v (8)
1 T
I vI

Equations 6 and 8 can be recombined to give:

A1 v
T 1 1 T I
A2 vI

T 2vI vT I
vI A2

and, substituting the stress values back for the particle velocities:

T 2 1C01 I 2C02 T I
1C01 I A2

which, after some manipulation, gives the following equation for the transmitted stress

2C02 2 A1 (9)
C02 2 A2 C01 1 A1

2 I 2 A1
I 2 A2 I 1 A1


I 1 A1 I
I 2 A2

To find the reflected stress, we substitute for T in equation 6

C02 2 A2 C01 1 A1 (10)

C02 2 A2 C01 1 A1

I 2 A2 I 1 A1
I 2 A2 I 1 A1

I 1 A1
I 2 A2

I 1 A1 I
I 2 A2

2.3.1 Free Surface

Figure 4 - Stress Wave Impinging on a Free Surface

The simplest case of discontinuity is a free surface. In this case, the acoustic impedance of
the material beyond the discontinuity 0 , and equations 9 and 10 yield:

T 0

I.E.: The reflected wave is of equal magnitude and opposite sign to the incident wave. This
means that a compressive incident wave will be reflected from a free boundary as a tensile
wave and vice versa.

NOTE: If the incident wave in figure 4 is compressive, then as it passes from left-to-right,
particles will be pushed to the right. When it is reflected as a tensile wave, travelling from
right-to-left, it will pull particles to the right. If the bar has free boundaries at both ends, the
successive tensile and compressive reflections will always displace particles to the right, and
the whole body will move to the right in a series of jerks (figure 5). Note in particular, that
particles in the bar do not move either before the incident wave arrives, nor in the gap between
the passage of a wave and the arrival of the reflection. This corresponds to the behaviour
defined in eqn 5: a particle only moves when the stress wave passes over it, and is stationary
both before the arrival of the stress wave, and after it has passed.

Figure 5 - Displacement of Centre of a Free-Free Bar by Passage of Stress Wave and

2.3.2 Rigid Surface

Figure 6 - Stress Wave Impinging on a Rigid Surface

In this case, the acoustic impedance of the rigid body . The transmitted stress is
meaningless (since, by definition, a rigid body has an infinite Youngs Modulus), and, from eqn.
10, the reflected stress is:


I.E.: An incident wave is impinging on a rigid boundary produces a reflected wave of

equal magnitude and sign.

2.3.3 Geometric Discontinuity

In this case, the material stays the same, but the shape or size of the bar changes (
1C01 2 C02 A1 A2 ).

From eqns. 9 & 10:

2 A1 2
A2 A1 A2 I
A2 A1 A
R I 1
A2 A1 A2 I

The terms in the brackets are known as the transmission and reflection coefficients
respectively, and the sign and magnitude of the transmitted and reflected waves are determined
solely by the ratio of the bar areas on either side of the discontinuity.

2.3.4 Material Discontinuity

In this case, the material changes, but the shape or size of the bar remains constant (
1C01 2 C02 A1 A2 ).

From eqns. 9 & 10:

2I2 2
I 2 I1 I1 I

I 2 I1 I2
I 2 I1 I1 I

2.4 Practical Uses of One-Dimensional Stress Waves - The Split Hopkinson Pressure
Bar (SHPB)

Material properties are generally measured in tests in which the load is increased so slowly,
that the test is effectively static. However, many materials have properties which change with
loading rate. For example, the yield strength of aluminium increases with increasing load rate.

A common method of determining material properties at higher strain rates is to use the
Split Hopkinson bar: a piece of test equipment which has been used at Sheffield University for
many years. The equipment consists of two long thin cylindrical metal (usually steel, but
alumininium, titanium or others may be used) bars, with a thin sample of the specimen under
test (axial length L0 , and, we assume, the same cross-sectional area as the bars 1) sandwiched
between the ends of the bars (figure 7). The elastic modulus and wave speed of the material
which makes up the two bars are E and C0 respectively.

NB: When testing materials which undergo significant plastic deformation, there may be some
radial spread of the specimen during the loading. In these cases, it is advisable to make the specimen
somewhat smaller in diameter than the bars, making some allowance for the radial dilation and hence
ensuring that the whole end surface of the specimen is loaded throughout the test.

Figure 7 - Schematic Diagram of Split Hopkinson Bar Test

A stress wave is sent down the transmitter bar, either by striking or detonating explosive on
the end of the bar. This wave impinges upon the specimen, where some of it passes through into
the transmitter bar, and some reflects back into the incident bar. The incident, transmitted and
reflected strains ( I , T & R ) are recorded by placing strain gauges on the perimeter of the
two bars.

2.4.1 Calculations

Consider the stress in the bar.

From eqn. 5,

E E du
.v .
C0 C0 dt

and since

1 du
C0 dt

u C0 dt

Total Displacement of the ends of the bars, at time T after the start of the pulses
u1 C0 I dt C0 R dt C0 ( I R ) dt
0 0 0

u2 C0 T dt

Average Axial Strain in Specimen at time T

u1 u2 C0
L0 0
s ( I R T ) dt

Strain Rate in Specimen

. du C
s s 0 ( I R T )
dt L0

Average Axial Stress in Specimen

Load on face 1 of specimen: P1 EA( I R )

Load on face 2: P2 EA T

Where E, and A are the Youngs Modulus and cross-sectional area of the bars.

P1 P2 1 E
s . ( I R T )
2 A 2

We therefore have a comprehensive record of the stress and strain which the sample
experiences throughout the test, and can plot a stress/strain curve for the particular strain rate

2.4.2 Practical Notes

Whilst the basic principle of the SPHB test is relatively simple, there are a number of
complicating factors which can adversely affect the quality of the results, and which are
often ignored. As a consequence, the test has been described as one of the most commonly
mis-interpreted procedures in experimental mechanics. Some of these factors, and the ways
of obviating the problems they cause: Time alignment of signals

All strain signals are recorded at some distance from the interface between the bars. It is
therefore necessary to time shift them so that they are overlaid at the time that they
would have co-incided at the interface. This requires a very accurate measurement of the
bar velocity, either by careful static measurement of the elastic modulus and density, and
use of equation (3), or, probably more conveniently, by careful analysis of the time of
passage of the stress wave between different strain gauge stations (but see section

12 Wave dispersion
The whole of this article has been concenred with the one-dimensional propagation of
elastic waves. This essentially ignores any effects of the radial thickness of the bar. Any
stress pulse propagating along the bar may be decomposed into its frequency components
by means of a Fourier Transform. Each frequency component has a characterstic
wavelength, the length of which is inversely proportional to the frequency. If significant
amounts of the energy of the pulse is contained by frequency components whose wavelength
is similar to that of the bar radius, the pulse will disperse as it propagates. This is because
such frequency components have a propagation velocity lower than that given by (3).

Dispersive pulses significantly change their shape and magnitude as they propagate, as the
different frequency components take different times to travel between any two points.
Consequently, the pulse as read at a strain gauge station some distance from the interface
between the bars may not accurately represent the pulse which actually loads the specimen
between the bars. Additionally, dispersive frequency components produce non-uniform
distributions of stress and strain over the cross-section of the bar, further complicating the
interpretation of the SHPB results.

Whilst the effects of dispersion can, theoretically, be compensated for, in practice it is

usually better and possible to design an experiment such that they do not have a significant
effect of the results. For a 10mm diameter steel bar, significant energy would have to be
contained at frequencies above about 3-500kHz for the pulse to be seriously affected by
dispersion. Such high frequencies are associated with sharp rising or falling edges of a
pulse. One way to ensure that dispersion is insignificant is to soften the loading on the front
face of the input bar, by placing some compliant material over the face. For loading from a
high velocity striker bar, a few sheets of paper will usually be adequate to sufficiently round
off the rising edge of the loading and effectively filter out the higher frequencies of the signal
at source. Alternatively, since the high frequencies travel with a slower velocity than the low
frequency components, they progressively lag further behind the head of the pulse. If the bar
is long enough, these frequency components are effectively filtered out of the main loading
pulse by the time that they reach the first recording station, and the pulse travels onwards
with no significant further dispersion. For a 200microsecond duration square loading pulse
for example, most of the highly dispersive frequencies will lag behind the main pulse after
propagating 2m or so.

It should be noted that dispersion implies another feature, even a perfectly square loading
pulse with instantaneous step changes of stress will automatically become rounded on its
rising and falling edges as it propagates along a bar and the high frequency components
progressively lag further and further behind the head of the pulse. Specimen dimensions and end conditions

It is vital that both the specimen length and its diameter not be too great. The length should
be minimised so that the assumption of equilibrium of force along the specimen is
reasonably justified. The radius should be minimised to ensure that the effect of radial self-
confinement (which would manifest itself as an apparent increase in the dynamic material
strength, over and above any real strength increase due to dynamic effects) is limited.