What is electromagnetic energy? (with photos)

Solar panels capture the sun’s electromagnetic energy and turn it into electricity.

Electromagnetic energy is known to most people as light and heat, but it can take many other forms, such as radio waves and X-rays. All these types of radiation originate from the electromagnetic force, responsible for all electrical and magnetic phenomena. Radiation travels at the speed of light in a wave-like manner.

Unlike sound waves, electromagnetic waves do not require a medium through which to move and can travel through empty space. The wavelength can range from hundreds of yards (meters) to subatomic scales. The full range of wavelengths is known as the electromagnetic spectrum, of which visible light forms only a small part. Despite the observed wave character of electromagnetic radiation (EMR), it can also behave as if it were composed of tiny particles known as photons.

Light, electricity and magnetism

Light is a form of electromagnetic energy.

The connection between light and electromagnetism was revealed in the 19th century by the work of physicist James Clerk Maxwell on electric and magnetic fields. Using equations he developed, he found that the speed at which fields move in space was exactly the speed of light and concluded that light was a perturbation of these fields, traveling in the form of waves. His equations also showed that other forms of EMR with longer and shorter wavelengths were possible; these were later identified. Maxwell’s discoveries gave rise to the study of electrodynamics, according to which EMR consists of electric and magnetic fields oscillating at right angles to each other and to the direction of motion. This explains the wave nature of light, as observed in many experiments.

Wavelength, frequency and energy

Physicist Albert Einstein discovered the photoelectric effect.

Electromagnetic radiation can be described in terms of its wavelength – the distance between wave crests – or its frequency – the number of crests that pass a fixed point during a fixed time interval. When moving in a vacuum, the EMR always travels at the speed of light; therefore, the rate at which the crests travel does not change and the frequency depends only on the wavelength. A shorter wavelength indicates a higher frequency and higher energy. This means that high-energy gamma rays do not travel faster than low-energy radio waves; instead, they have much shorter wavelengths and much higher frequencies.

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The Wave-Particle Duality

Plants use the sun’s electromagnetic energy for photosynthesis.

Electrodynamics was very successful in describing electromagnetic energy in terms of fields and waves, but in the early 20th century, Albert Einstein’s investigation of the photoelectric effect, in which light dislodges electrons from a metallic surface, posed a problem. He found that the energy of electrons was entirely dependent on the frequency, not the intensity, of light. An increase in frequency produced higher energy electrons, but an increase in brightness made no difference. The results could only be explained if light consisted of discrete particles – later called photons – that transferred their energy to electrons. This created a puzzle: observed at large scales, EMR behaves like waves, but its interactions with matter at smaller scales can only be explained in terms of particles.

The full range of electromagnetic waves is identified as the electromagnetic spectrum.

This is known as wave-particle duality. It emerged during the development of quantum theory and applies to everything on the subatomic scale; electrons, for example, can behave as both waves and particles. There is no general consensus among scientists as to what this duality really means about the nature of electromagnetic energy.

Quantum Electrodynamics

A new theory, known as quantum electrodynamics (QED), has finally emerged to explain the particle-like behavior of EMR. According to the QED, photons are the particles that carry the electromagnetic force, and the interactions of electrically charged objects are explained in terms of the production and absorption of these particles, which themselves do not charge. QED is considered one of the most successful theories ever developed.

How Electromagnetic Energy is Produced

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Classical electrodynamics described the production of EMR in terms of the movement of electrical charges, but a more modern explanation — in line with quantum theory — is based on the idea that the subatomic particles of which matter is composed can only occupy certain fixed energy levels. Electromagnetic radiation is released by the change from a higher to a lower energy state. Left to itself, matter will always try to reach its lowest level of energy.

EMR can be produced when matter temporarily absorbs energy — for example, when it is heated — then releases it to drop to a lower level. A lower energy state can also be achieved when atoms or molecules combine with one another in a chemical reaction. Combustion is a familiar example: typically, the molecule combines with oxygen from the air, forming products that collectively have less energy than the original molecule. This causes electromagnetic energy to be released in the form of flame.

In the Sun’s core, four hydrogen nuclei combine, in a series of steps, to form a helium nucleus that has slightly less mass, and therefore less energy. This process is known as nuclear fusion. The excess energy is released as high frequency gamma rays that are absorbed by matter further out, which then emits this energy, mostly in the form of visible light and heat.

Electromagnetic Energy, Life, and Technology

Energy from the Sun is crucial to life on Earth. Sunlight heats the Earth’s surface, which in turn heats the atmosphere, maintaining temperatures suitable for life and driving the planet’s weather systems. Plants make use of the Sun’s electromagnetic energy for photosynthesis, the method by which they produce food. Solar energy is converted to chemical energy that powers the processes that allow plants to make the glucose they need to survive from carbon dioxide and water. The by-product of this reaction is oxygen, so photosynthesis is responsible for maintaining the planet’s oxygen levels.

Most forms of technology rely largely on electromagnetic energy. The Industrial Revolution was powered by heat generated by the combustion of fossil fuels, and more recently, solar radiation has been used directly to provide “clean” and renewable power. Modern communication, broadcasting, and the Internet rely heavily on radio waves and on light channeled through fiber optic cables. Laser technology uses light to read from and write to CDs and DVDs. Most of what scientists know about the universe comes from the analysis of EMR of various wavelengths from distant stars and galaxies.

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Effects on Health

High frequency EMR, such as gamma rays, X-rays, and ultraviolet light, carries enough energy to cause chemical changes in biological molecules. It may break chemical bonds or remove electrons from atoms, forming ions. This can damage cells and alter DNA, increasing the risk of cancer. Concerns have also been expressed about the health effects of lower frequency EMR, such as the radio waves and microwaves used by cell phones and other communication devices. Although these forms of radiation appear to have no direct effect on the chemistry of life, they may cause tissue to be heated in localized areas with prolonged exposure. There does not, so far, appear to be any conclusive evidence that this can make people ill.

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