Did you ever wonder how a microwave works? It directs invisible waves of radiation toward the food placed inside of it. The radiation transfers energy to the food, causing it to get warmer. The radiation is in the form of microwaves, which are a type of electromagnetic waves.
What Are Electromagnetic Waves?
Electromagnetic waves are waves that consist of vibrating electric and magnetic fields. Like other waves, electromagnetic waves transfer energy from one place to another. The transfer of energy by electromagnetic waves is called electromagnetic radiation. Electromagnetic waves can transfer energy through matter or across empty space.
Q: How do microwaves transfer energy inside a microwave oven?
A: They transfer energy through the air inside the oven to the food.
How an Electromagnetic Wave Begins
An electromagnetic wave begins when an electrically charged particle vibrates. The Figure below shows how this happens. A vibrating charged particle causes the electric field surrounding it to vibrate as well. A vibrating electric field, in turn, creates a vibrating magnetic field. The two types of vibrating fields combine to create an electromagnetic wave. You can see animations of electromagnetic waves at these URLs:
The electric and magnetic fields that make up an electromagnetic wave are perpendicular to each other.
How an Electromagnetic Wave Travels
As you can see in the Figure above, the electric and magnetic fields that make up an electromagnetic wave are perpendicular (at right angles) to each other. Both fields are also perpendicular to the direction that the wave travels. Therefore, an electromagnetic wave is a transverse wave. However, unlike a mechanical transverse wave, which can only travel through matter, an electromagnetic transverse wave can travel through empty space. When waves travel through matter, they lose some energy to the matter as they pass through it. But when waves travel through space, no energy is lost. Therefore, electromagnetic waves don’t get weaker as they travel. However, the energy is “diluted” as it travels farther from its source because it spreads out over an ever-larger area.
Electromagnetic Wave Interactions
When electromagnetic waves strike matter, they may interact with it in the same ways that mechanical waves interact with matter. Electromagnetic waves may:
- reflect, or bounce back from a surface;
- refract, or bend when entering a new medium;
- diffract, or spread out around obstacles.
Electromagnetic waves may also be absorbed by matter and converted to other forms of energy. Microwaves are a familiar example. When microwaves strike food in a microwave oven, they are absorbed and converted to thermal energy, which heats the food.
Speed of Electromagnetic Waves
All electromagnetic waves travel at the same speed through empty space. That speed, called the speed of light, is about 300 million meters per second (3.0 x 10 8 m/s). Nothing else in the universe is known to travel this fast. The sun is about 150 million kilometers (93 million miles) from Earth, but it takes electromagnetic radiation only 8 minutes to reach Earth from the sun. If you could move that fast, you would be able to travel around Earth 7.5 times in just 1 second!
Wavelength and Frequency of Electromagnetic Waves
Although all electromagnetic waves travel at the same speed across space, they may differ in their wavelengths, frequencies, and energy levels.
- Wavelength is the distance between corresponding points of adjacent waves (see the Figure below). Wavelengths of electromagnetic waves range from longer than a soccer field to shorter than the diameter of an atom.
- Wave frequency is the number of waves that pass a fixed point in a given amount of time. Frequencies of electromagnetic waves range from thousands of waves per second to trillions of waves per second.
- The energy of electromagnetic waves depends on their frequency. Low-frequency waves have little energy and are normally harmless. High-frequency waves have a lot of energy and are potentially very harmful.
Which electromagnetic waves do you think have higher frequencies visible light or x-rays? Answer: X-rays are harmful but visible light is harmless, so you can infer that x-rays have higher frequencies than visible light.
Which electromagnetic waves do you think have higher frequencies: visible light or x-rays?
It’s a warm sunny Saturday, and Michael and Lavar have a big day planned. They’re going to ride across town to meet their friends and then go to the zoo. The boys may not realize it, but they will be bombarded by electromagnetic radiation as they ride their bikes and walk around the zoo grounds. The only kinds of radiation they can detect are visible light, which allows them to see, and infrared light, which they feel as warmth on their skin.
Q: Besides visible light and infrared light, what other kinds of electromagnetic radiation will the boys be exposed to in sunlight?
A: Sunlight consists of all the different kinds of electromagnetic radiation, from harmless radio waves to deadly gamma rays. Fortunately, Earth’s atmosphere prevents most of the harmful radiation from reaching Earth’s surface. You can read about the different kinds of electromagnetic radiation in this section.
Electromagnetic radiation is energy that travels in waves across space as well as through matter. Most of the electromagnetic radiation on Earth comes from the sun. Like other waves, electromagnetic waves are characterized by certain wavelengths and wave frequencies. Wavelength is the distance between two corresponding points on adjacent waves. Wave frequency is the number of waves that pass a fixed point in a given amount of time. Electromagnetic waves with shorter wavelengths have higher frequencies and more energy.
A Spectrum of Electromagnetic Waves
Visible light and infrared light are just a small part of the full range of electromagnetic radiation, which is called the electromagnetic spectrum. You can see the waves of the electromagnetic spectrum in the Figure below. At the top of the diagram, the wavelengths of the waves are given. Also included are objects that are about the same size as the corresponding wavelengths. The frequencies and energy levels of the waves are shown at the bottom of the diagram.
Which type of wave is the longest? Which type of wave has the highest frequency and energy level?
- On the left side of the electromagnetic spectrum diagram are radio waves and microwaves. Radio waves have the longest wavelengths and lowest frequencies of all electromagnetic waves. They also have the least amount of energy.
- On the right side of the diagram are X rays and gamma rays. They have the shortest wavelengths and highest frequencies of all electromagnetic waves. They also have the most energy.
- Between these two extremes are waves that are commonly called light. Light includes infrared light, visible light, and ultraviolet light. The wavelengths, frequencies, and energy levels of light fall in between those of radio waves on the left and X rays and gamma rays on the right.
- Electromagnetic waves are waves that consist of vibrating electric and magnetic fields. They transfer energy through matter or across space. The transfer of energy by electromagnetic waves is called electromagnetic radiation.
- An electromagnetic wave begins when an electrically charged particle vibrates. This causes a vibrating electric field, which in turn creates a vibrating magnetic field. The two vibrating fields together form an electromagnetic wave.
- An electromagnetic wave is a transverse wave that can travel across space as well as through matter. When it travels through space, it doesn’t lose energy to a medium as a mechanical wave does.
- When electromagnetic waves strike matter, they may be reflected, refracted, or diffracted. Or they may be absorbed by matter and converted to other forms of energy.
- All electromagnetic waves travel across space at the speed of light, which is about 300 million meters per second (3.0 x 10 8 m/s).
- Electromagnetic waves vary in wavelength and frequency. Longer wavelength electromagnetic waves have lower frequencies, and shorter wavelength waves have higher frequencies. Higher frequency waves have more energy.
- electromagnetic radiation: Transfer of energy by electromagnetic waves across space or through matter.
- electromagnetic spectrum: The full range of electromagnetic radiation. From longest to shortest wavelengths, it includes radio waves, microwaves, infrared light, visible light, ultraviolet light, X rays, and gamma rays
- electromagnetic wave: Transverse wave consisting of vibrating electric and magnetic fields that can travel across space.
- speed of light: Speed at which all electromagnetic waves travel through space, which is 3.0 × 10 8 m/s.
For an excellent video introduction to electromagnetic waves, go to this URL: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cfXzwh3KadE
- What surrounds you everyday and everywhere?
- EM waves are like ocean waves in that they both transmit __________.
- The number of crests that pass a given point in one second is the _________.
- What is the difference between gamma rays and radio waves?
- What part of the EM spectrum can we see?
- EM waves interact with the molecules in objects so some wavelengths are _______ while others are absorbed.
- Everything around us emits, reflects, and absorbs EM radiation differently based on its __________.
- What is an electromagnetic wave?
- How does an electromagnetic wave begin?
- What can electromagnetic waves do that mechanical transverse waves cannot?
- What is the speed of light across space?
- How is wavelength measured?
- How is the energy of an electromagnetic wave related to its frequency?
- Describe the relationship between the wavelength and frequency of electromagnetic waves.
- Explain why gamma rays are the most dangerous of all electromagnetic waves.