Introducing The Acoustic Prism



For almost 400 years the prism has been a unique tool for separating white light into all the colors of the rainbow according to their wave frequency. Now, the prism has a whole new use, thanks to some truly innovative minds.

Scientists in Switzerland have created the world’s first sound-based prism. The acoustic prism behaves similarly to its visual counterpart: it breaks down sounds according to their respective frequencies by physical means alone.

Originally devised as a thought experiment, the prism quickly morphed into an engineering challenge. Using an aluminum case with polymer membranes, sound is transmitted through a series of 10 identical holes. Based on the frequency of each sound, the waves will emerge from different holes in the case. Listeners can catch different tones depending on which hole is nearest to them.

The real champion of the design is the polymer membrane, which allows the separation of each particular frequency for clear auditory processing. Their ability to effectively disperse sound is what makes the acoustic prism such an impressive man-made device.

“This is a very elegant and efficient way for distinguishing sound frequencies.”

Nicholas Fang, professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Perhaps most intriguing are the potential real-life applications of the prism. With further enhancements it could be used to determine the exact location of a sound without ever having to move the prism. The specific frequencies of the waves would act as a map, and the prism would provide the compass.

And unlike previous experiments in this field, the acoustic prism is remarkably cost effective. While many devices that focus on location or identifying wave frequencies are extremely delicate and expensive, the acoustic prism is a sleek and simple design that can be easily replicated. Scientists and engineers believe that it could be fabricated and miniaturized while still being an effective tool. Who knows? Maybe soon acoustic prisms will be as common as the classic optical ones.

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