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How Metal Detectors Work

        Tech | Other Gadgets

VLF Phase Shifting

How does a VLF metal detector distinguish between different metals? It relies on a phenomenon known as phase shifting. Phase shift is the difference in timing between the transmitter coil's frequency and the frequency of the target object. This discrepancy can result from a couple of things:

  • Inductance - An object that conducts electricity easily (is inductive) is slow to react to changes in the current. You can think of inductance as a deep river: Change the amount of water flowing into the river and it takes some time before you see a difference.
  • Resistance - An object that does not conduct electricity easily (is resistive) is quick to react to changes in the current. Using our water analogy, resistance would be a small, shallow stream: Change the amount of water flowing into the stream and you notice a drop in the water level very quickly.

Basically, this means that an object with high inductance is going to have a larger phase shift, because it takes longer to alter its magnetic field. An object with high resistance is going to have a smaller phase shift.

Phase shift provides VLF-based metal detectors with a capability called discrimination. Since most metals vary in both inductance and resistance, a VLF metal detector examines the amount of phase shift, using a pair of electronic circuits called phase demodulators, and compares it with the average for a particular type of metal. The detector then notifies you with an audible tone or visual indicator as to what range of metals the object is likely to be in.

Many metal detectors even allow you to filter out (discriminate) objects above a certain phase-shift level. Usually, you can set the level of phase shift that is filtered, generally by adjusting a knob that increases or decreases the threshold. Another discrimination feature of VLF detectors is called notching. Essentially, a notch is a discrimination filter for a particular segment of phase shift. The detector will not only alert you to objects above this segment, as normal discrimination would, but also to objects below it.

Advanced detectors even allow you to program multiple notches. For example, you could set the detector to disregard objects that have a phase shift comparable to a soda-can tab or a small nail. The disadvantage of discrimination and notching is that many valuable items might be filtered out because their phase shift is similar to that of "junk." But, if you know that you are looking for a specific type of object, these features can be extremely useful.