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Quantization of Energy

Relationship between the energy gained or lost by an object.

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Quantization of Energy

Every so often you hear a commercial or a news story with the words “quantum leap” in it. The quantum leap is supposed to be a major breakthrough, a big change, something extraordinarily large. The reality is far different. Instead of the big, extravagant change, the “quantum” that scientists know about is a very small difference in the location of an electron around a nucleus – hardly an enormous shift at all.

Quantization of Energy

German physicist Max Planck (1858-1947) studied the emission of light by hot objects. You have likely seen a heated metal object glow an orange-red color (Figure below).

A heated object gives off energy in quanta

Credit: Jack Delano, courtesy of the Library of Congress
Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Santa_Fe_RR_steam_drop_hammer.jpg
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

A heated object may glow different colors. The atoms in this piece of metal are releasing energy in discrete units called quanta.[Figure1]

Classical physics, which explains the behavior of large, everyday objects, predicted that a hot object would emit electromagnetic energy in a continuous fashion. In other words, every wavelength of light could possibly be emitted. Instead, what Planck found by analyzing the spectra was that the energy of the hot body could only be lost in small discrete units. A quantum is the minimum quantity of energy that can either be lost or gained by an atom. An analogy is that a brick wall can only undergo a change in height by units of one or more bricks and not by any possible height. Planck showed that the amount of radiant energy absorbed or emitted by an object is directly proportional to the frequency of the radiation.


In this equation, \begin{align*}E\end{align*} is the energy, in joules, of a quantum of radiation, \begin{align*}v\end{align*} is the frequency, and \begin{align*}h\end{align*} is a fundamental constant called Planck’s constant. The value of Planck’s constant is \begin{align*}h=6.626 \times 10^{-34} \ \text{J} \cdot \text{s}\end{align*}. The energy of any system must increase or decrease in units of \begin{align*}h \times v\end{align*}. A small energy change results in the emission or absorption of low-frequency radiation, while a large energy change results in the emission or absorption of high-frequency radiation.

Sample Problem: Quantized Energy

What is the energy of a photon of green light with a frequency of 5.75 × 1014 Hz?

Step 1: List the known quantities and plan the problem.


  • frequency \begin{align*}(\nu)\end{align*} = 5.75 × 1014 Hz
  • Planck's constant \begin{align*}(h)\end{align*} = 6.626 × 10-34 J • s


  • energy \begin{align*}(E)\end{align*}

Apply the equation \begin{align*}E=hv\end{align*} to solve for the energy.

Step 2: Calculate.

\begin{align*}E=(6.626 \times 10^{-34} \ \text{J} \cdot \text{s}) \times (5.75 \times 10^{14} \ \text{Hz})=3.81 \times 10^{-19} \ \text{J}\end{align*}

Step 3: Think about your result.

While the resulting energy may seem very small, this is for only one photon of light. Visible quantities of light consist of huge quantities of photons. Recall that a hertz is equal to a reciprocal second, so the units agree in the equation.









  • A quantum is the minimum quantity of energy that can either be lost or gained by an atom.
  • The value of Planck’s constant is \begin{align*}h=6.626 \times 10^{-34} \ \text{J} \cdot \text{s}\end{align*}.


  1. What did classical physics predict about hot objects?
  2. What did Planck find?
  3. What is a quantum?

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Image Attributions

  1. [1]^ Credit: Jack Delano, courtesy of the Library of Congress; Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Santa_Fe_RR_steam_drop_hammer.jpg; License: CC BY-NC 3.0

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