A couplant is a material that serves as a medium for the transmission of sound waves in ultrasonic testing. Usually, couplant gel is a form of water-based substance, or a paste composed of oils or grease-like chemicals. Couplant is generally necessary because the acoustic impedance mismatch between air and solids (i.e. such as the test specimen) is large. Therefore, nearly all of the energy is reflected and very little is transmitted into the test material. The couplant displaces the air and makes it possible to get more sound energy into the test specimen so that a usable ultrasonic signal can be obtained. In contact ultrasonic testing a thin film of oil, glycerin or water is generally used between the transducer and the test surface.
In ultrasonic testing, when scanning over the part or making precise measurements, an immersion technique is often used. In immersion ultrasonic testing both the transducer and the part are immersed in the couplant, which is typically water. This method of coupling makes it easier to maintain consistent coupling while moving and manipulating the transducer and/or the part.
Many conventional substances can be used as a couplant, including motor oil or even hair gel. This is because even a very thin layer of air between a transducer and sound specimen will have strong attenuation effects, and nearly any solid placed between them will reduce this. Electrical components can generate a lot of heat, however, so specially formulated couplants are designed to accommodate this.