Ultrasonic Cleaners and How they Work

Ultrasonic cleaners will probably never rank as high as a hot air fryer or microwave oven on a family wish list but according to recent statistics the market for versatile and thorough ultrasonic cleaners will grow to $738.1 million in 2027 from $604.8 million in 2019.  While householders and DIY mechanics are increasingly attracted to ultrasonic cleaners the study citied key growth areas as

  • The healthcare industry, where they are used for cleaning surgical, medical and dental instruments to meet strict standards
  • The automotive industry for thorough cleaning complex engine parts such as carburetors and fuel injectors
  • The aerospace and defense industry to remove contaminants from critical parts during manufacture as well as for maintenance and operation procedures
  • The electronics industry both for manufacturing and reconditioning PCBs and similar delicate components found in computers and mobile devices   

Ultrasonic Cleaners:  Not a “New” Technology

Author Timothy J. Matson notes in Ultrasonic Cleaning, an Historical Perspective “The development of ultrasonic cleaning dates from the middle of the 20th century and has become a method of choice for a range of surface cleaning operations.”  This is borne out by statistics referenced in our introduction to this post. 

For those of you considering ultrasonic cleaning as a way to improve your cleaning operation efficiency, customer satisfaction, improving your company’s bottom line or meeting increasingly stringent industry requirements we offer this “tutorial” on

How Does Ultrasonic Cleaning Work?

Describing how ultrasonic cleaners work is likening them to an automatic dishwasher, but with some added refinements.  An automatic dishwasher, much the same as an ultrasonic cleaner, combines water and a detergent to remove grease, grime and other contaminants from objects being cleaned. 

But instead of cleaning pots and pans and bowls, ultrasonic cleaners most often are used to clean various other metal, glass  and plastic products difficult or impossible to clean by other methods.  In fact they can be used to clean most any material or surface not damaged by immersion in an aqueous solution.

As suggested above, applications for ultrasonic cleaners include cleaning greasy engine components, newly machined and fabricated components, medical and surgical instruments.  Other applications include cleaning costly and highly finished plastic injection molds, precision optics and laboratory glassware. 

The Added Punch of How Ultrasonic Cleaning Works

Unlike high-pressure water sprays used in automatic dishwashers, ultrasonic cleaners work by using the power of imploding (not exploding) microscopic bubbles in a process called cavitation.  This process is explained below. 

Also different is the use of biodegradable cleaning solution concentrates specially formulated for the cleaning tasks at hand.   You can learn more about how these work in our post on how to select a cleaning solution formula.  Use instructions for these solutions are provided by the manufacturers.

Ultrasonic Cleaning Unit Components

Understanding how ultrasonic cleaning works calls for an understanding of equipment components.  A Google search for these cleaners will reveal that models and pricing range all over the map.  At the basic, however, these units consist of: 

  • Tanks to hold the cleaning solution.  Tanks should be of stainless steel; their volume depends on the size of objects being cleaned
  • Ultrasonic transducers that create the cavitation and that are bonded to the bottom of the tank
  • A generator to power the transducers
  • Controls that range from a simple on-off switch to sophisticated microprocessors that govern cleaning time, sweep, pulse, degassing, temperature, ultrasonic frequency , ultrasonic power, auto safety shutoffs and other refinements.  More on these below.

Ultrasonic cleaning equipment ranges from small tabletop units to huge, multi-gallon industrial cleaners.  The capacity of the cleaners has little or no bearing on the features they can offer – desired feature decisions are up to you, the purchaser with help from experts such as those at Tovatech.  A good place to start is reviewing our post on how to select an ultrasonic cleaner.

What Do Ultrasonic Transducers Do?

There are two basic types of transducers; piezoelectric (a.k.a. electrostrictive) or magnetostrictive, but their function is the same. 

They are excited by electric current provided by the ultrasonic cleaner’s generator to vibrate at ultrasonic frequencies that cause the bottom (and sides as the case can also be) of the tank to vibrate and thus serve as a membrane.

This vibration forms the vacuum bubbles that implode, (not explode) on contact with items in the ultrasonic cleaner tank thereby blasting loose and carrying away contaminants.  

There are also immersible transducers.  Check this post on piezoelectric and magnetostrictive transducers for more information on the differences.

Ultrasonic frequency is an important part of how ultrasonic cleaning works and is discussed next. 

How to Choose an Ultrasonic Cleaning Frequency

Ultrasonic is typically defined as sound above the human range of hearing. Ultrasonic frequency is defined as kilohertz (KHz) or thousands of cycles per second.

Low frequencies such as 25,000 cycles per second or 25 kHz produce relatively large bubbles that implode more violently than relatively smaller bubbles created at higher frequencies such as 37, 80 or 130 kHz that produce progressively gentle cleaning action. 

To the naked eye the difference is difficult if not impossible to discern. As an example, the radius of a cavitation bubble produced at 37 kHz is approximately 88 microns.  At 80 kHz it is 41 microns.

(As a bit of digression, the implosion of cavitation bubbles produces shock waves radiating from the site of the collapse and creates temperatures in excess of 10,000°F and pressures in excess of 10,000 psi at the implosion site.  Point this out to your friends if discussion lags at a group gathering.)

Yet the process is so fast that there is little heat buildup and no damage to parts being cleaned.  That said, one should never reach into an operating ultrasonic cleaner to check, reposition or remove parts for examination. 

Removing gross contaminants from robust parts such as fabricated or cast metals requires lower frequency cleaners. 

Softer metals, plastics, and products with polished surfaces should be cleaned at higher frequencies.  In addition to protecting polished surfaces smaller bubbles are better able to penetrate tight areas such as seams, crevices and blind holes.  

The Ultrasonic Cleaning Basket

Ultrasonic cleaners work best when cavitation bubbles access all surfaces immersed in the cleaning solution. 

Ultrasonic cleaner baskets with open mesh bottoms

This is best accomplished when parts are suspended in the solution, not reposing on the cleaning tank floor (a bad practice). 

In the majority of instances, ultrasonic cleaning baskets are used to hold the parts at the proper distance from the tank bottom.  Baskets typically are of stainless steel mesh with mesh or solid stainless-steel walls. 

Small parts such as screws can be placed in fine mesh baskets that either rest in the tank basket or are suspended in the solution.  Very large parts can be suspended from overhead supports to the correct depth for cleaning. 

You may ask, why is this? 

Because, in addition to promoting more efficient cleaning, baskets keep parts from contact with the tank bottom where ultrasonic frequency vibrations will cause wear to the tank.  Eventually this may lead to holes being developed in the tank and vibration damage to the parts being cleaned.

This brings up a point when considering the size (tank dimensions) of your ultrasonic cleaner.

Ultrasonic cleaners work best when parts are totally immersed in the solution.  Other than obvious width and length of the tank (more specifically the basket) is what is called the working depth of the unit, or the distance between the bottom of the basket and the surface of the cleaning solution.  Keep that in mind when selecting your unit.

Ultrasonic Cleaner “Bells and Whistles”

Ultrasonic cleaners work best when they provide features that make the cleaning faster, more thorough and hence more efficient.  Earlier we mentioned that basic units may be equipped only with a simple on-off switch, but indicated other features that can lead to the desired results.  Here is a brief rundown of those:

Elmasonic P Series Ultrasonic Cleaners
Elmasonic P Series
  • Timers let you program the length of the cleaning cycle (often gained through experience) so you can set the time and do other tasks while cleaning takes place.
  • Temperature controls let you set the recommended cleaning temperature as recommended by the cleaning solution provider.  Some units are equipped to provide auto-start when the set temperature is reached.
  • Sweep Mode provides a slight ± variation in ultrasonic frequency that avoids what are called hot spots (potentially damaging high cavitation), dead zones (low or no cleaning action) and harmonic vibration that can damage delicate parts such as printed circuit boards.   The opposite of Sweep is Normal, or fixed frequency, which has use in labs for sample preparation.  Some units offer a choice of Sweep and Normal.
  • Degas Mode drives off trapped air in fresh cleaning solutions.  Trapped gas interferes with cleaning action.  Running the unit without a load will eventually degas the solution but takes longer.
  • Pulse Mode delivers pulses of increased ultrasonic power to blast away tenacious contaminants. 
  • Ultrasonic frequency can be varied on certain units, letting users set the frequency best-suited for the job and thereby broadening the use of their ultrasonic cleaner.  Examples include the dual-frequency Elmasonic P and TI-H models
  • Ultrasonic power is controllable on certain models, also letting users set the best cleaning parameters for the jobs at hand.  These usually allow increments from 10 to 100%. A point to remember is that more power does not translate to better results.  Check our post on ultrasonic frequency and power.
  • Safety shutoffs help protect the unit and contents against excess temperatures and overlong cleaning cycles that may cause cleaning solution evaporation below recommended levels . 

There are many accessories offered by manufacturers that help ultrasonic cleaning work better and more efficiently.  Examples include soundproof covers, cooling coils, flask holders and for larger units, cleaning solution filters.  For a closer look check our post on ultrasonic cleaner accessories.

Where do Ultrasonic Cleaning Contaminants Go?

For the automatic dishwasher, the answer is down the drain.  For your ultrasonic cleaner, they remain in the solution. 

Contaminants removed during the cleaning process either float to the surface or sink to the bottom or remain in suspension.  Our earlier reference on cleaning solution selection goes into this in some detail. 

Contaminants that float to the top should be skimmed off and set aside for later disposal.  Some tanks are equipped with skimmers and weirs to direct floating contaminants to a collector. Large units can be equipped with filters to extend solution life.  

The point is, eventually ultrasonic cleaning efficiency will fall and the solution must be drained and disposed of along with skimmed off contaminants, according to local regulations. 

When that time comes take the time to clean your ultrasonic cleaner tank following the manufacturer’s instructions.  Prepare and degas fresh solution and you’re ready to resume cleaning.

Call the ultrasonic cleaner professionals at Tovatech for help in selecting the ultrasonic cleaner and cleaning solution combinations that work best for your operations.

Useful Resources on How Ultrasonic Cleaners Work

View our ultrasonic cleaning learning center videos to learn everything you need to know to get the most out of your ultrasonic cleaners.

Check out these real-life examples of how folks use ultrasonic cleaners to

About Rachel Kohn

So how did an MIT Ph.D. end up selling refrigerators? When I figured out that a lot more scientists buy lab refrigerators than innovative leading-edge instruments. I hope that my many years of lab experience will help you find the right equipment for your work. Before co-founding Tovatech I worked in business development and project management at Smiths Detection, Photon-X, Cardinal Health, and Hoechst Celanese. And before that I spent 12 years as an R&D chemist at Hoechst Celanese and Aventis working on advanced drug delivery systems, polymer films and membranes, optical disks, and polysaccharides. Some day, eventually, I’ll make enough money to develop an innovative technology that will change the world. Read More