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The generation of ultrasound in coating-substrate systems subjected to laser beam illumination has been studied quantitatively by using the finite element method. Taking into account the temperature dependence of material properties, the transient temperature and temperature gradient field can be obtained in different coating-substrate systems. According to the thermoelastic theory, these temperature gradient fields are taken as bulk sources to generate ultrasound in coating-substrate systems. The typical surface acoustic waves (SAWs) in systems, a slow coating on a fast substrate and a fast coating on a slow substrate, are obtained. The influence of the propagation distance and the coating thickness on the SAWs is analyzed. © 2004 American Institute of Physics.