Factors Affecting Wave Speed
The speed of any wave depends upon the properties of the medium through which the wave is traveling. Typically there are two essential types of properties that effect wave speed - inertial properties and elastic properties. Elastic properties are those properties related to the tendency of a material to maintain its shape and not deform whenever a force or stress is applied to it. A material such as steel will experience a very small deformation of shape (and dimension) when a stress is applied to it. Steel is a rigid material with a high elasticity. On the other hand, a material such as a rubber band is highly flexible; when a force is applied to stretch the rubber band, it deforms or changes its shape readily. A small stress on the rubber band causes a large deformation. Steel is considered to be a stiff or rigid material, whereas a rubber band is considered a flexible material. At the particle level, a stiff or rigid material is characterized by atoms and/or molecules with strong attractions for each other. When a force is applied in an attempt to stretch or deform the material, its strong particle interactions prevent this deformation and help the material maintain its shape. Rigid materials such as steel are considered to have a high elasticity. (Elastic modulus is the technical term). The phase of matter has a tremendous impact upon the elastic properties of the medium. In general, solids have the strongest interactions between particles, followed by liquids and then gases. For this reason, longitudinal sound waves travel faster in solids than they do in liquids than they do in gases. Even though the inertial factor may favor gases, the elastic factor has a greater influence on the speed ( v ) of a wave, thus yielding this general pattern: vsolids > vliquids > vgases
Inertial properties are those properties related to the material 's tendency to be sluggish to changes in its state of motion. The density of a medium is an example of an inertial property . The greater the inertia (i.e., mass density) of individual particles of the medium, the less responsive they will be to the interactions between neighboring particles and the slower that the wave will be. As stated above, sound waves travel faster in solids than they do in liquids than they do in gases. However, within a single phase of matter, the inertial property of density tends to be the property that has a greatest impact upon the speed of sound. A sound wave will travel faster in a less dense material than a more dense material. Thus, a sound wave will travel nearly three times faster in Helium than it will in air. This is mostly due to the lower mass of Helium particles as compared to air particles.
The speed of a sound wave in air depends upon the properties of the air, mostly the temperature, and to a lesser degree, the humidity. Humidity is the result of water vapor being present in air. Like any liquid, water has a tendency to evaporate. As it does, particles of gaseous water become mixed in the air. This additional matter will affect the mass density of the air (an inertial property). The temperature will affect the strength of the particle interactions (an elastic property). At normal atmospheric pressure, the temperature dependence of the speed of a sound wave through dry air is approximated by the following equation:
v = 331 m/s + (0.6 m/s/C)•T
where T is the temperature of the air in degrees Celsius. Using this equation to determine the speed of a sound wave in air at a temperature of 20 degrees Celsius yields the following solution. v = 331 m/s + (0.6 m/s/C)•T
v = 331 m/s + (0.6 m/s/C)•(20 C)
v = 331 m/s + 12 m/s
v = 343 m/s
(The above equation relating the speed of a sound wave in air to the temperature provides reasonably accurate speed values for temperatures between 0 and 100 Celsius. The equation itself does not have any theoretical basis; it is simply the result of inspecting temperature-speed data for this temperature range. Other equations do exist that are based upon theoretical reasoning and provide accurate data for all temperatures. Nonetheless, the equation above will be sufficient for our use as introductory Physics students.)
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