What Is a Shock Wave & How Is It Produced?

Written by natalie walker
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What Is a Shock Wave & How Is It Produced?
Shock waves produced by earthquakes can cause tsunamis. (wave image by NorthShoreSurfPhotos from Fotolia.com)

The study of shock waves is important in the physical sciences to understand how bursts of energy produce waves. This phenomenon has applications for various disciplines such as astronomy, medicine, and geography.

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Definition

The American Heritage Science Dictionary defines a shock wave as "a large-amplitude wave formed by the sudden compression of the medium through which the wave moves."

Naturally Produced Shock Waves

Natural events, such as earthquakes, cause shock waves by releasing energy through the ground, air or water at a speed of three to two miles per second. Shock waves also happen in outer space. NASA scientists have captured images of shock waves caused by solar flares on the surface of the sun.

Aeronautically Produced

The Aeronautical Knowledge Handbook explains that when an aircraft exceeds the speed of sound "the air particles are completely undisturbed, having had no advanced warning of the aeroplane's approach, and in the next instant the same air particles are forced to undergo sudden and drastic changes in temperature, pressure, density, and velocity." These forces create a shock wave.

Mechanically Produced

Pizoelectric, electromagnetic or electrohydraulic transducers can produce small shock waves in a laboratory by introducing a pressure wave through a conductive material. Veterinarians and physicians use these shock waves for certain types of medical procedures including kidney stone removal, treatment of soft tissue injuries and cancer research.

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