What is Electromagnetic Radiation? Fun Energy Facts Series – Part 9

By Vernon Trollinger, November 14, 2016, Events & Fun

Energy – whether electrical, thermal, or mechanical – can do fantastic things, and sometimes science uncovers phenomena no one even dreamed was possible. Because it’s fun to shock and astound friends and relations with incredible facts, we’re going to investigate some of this unbelievable and really cool information. Our Fun Energy Facts series will be at times hot, cold, weighty, electrifying, and morbid, but we know you’ll get enough of a charge out of it to spark an energetic conversation.

Understanding the Relationship Between Heat, Light, and Energy

I stumbled across an example of an energy misconception while browsing for information on ceramic heaters for the chicken coop at my home.

What is Electromagnetic Radiation? Fun Energy Facts Series – Part 9 | Bounce Energy Blog

“I am confused. How can a ceramic heat coil emit light, even light that we can not see? Heat waves may be an energy source in the form of a wave, but I do not think ceramic has the capacity to emit light from its atomic structure.”

OK – this seems rational, right? Because humans experience heat and light as two separate physical sensations (we SEE light and FEEL heat), many people generally assume the two kinds of energy must come from separate sources. But in this case, this is an incomplete understanding of how heat and light work and interact. What humans are actually experiencing is two kinds of sensations from the effects of the same kind of energy. And that’s called electromagnetic radiation.

I then came across the following thought in that same article:

What is Electromagnetic Radiation? Fun Energy Facts Series – Part 9 | Bounce Energy Blog

“Infrared lamps generally have a gas or a special filament. You telling me if I heated up my ceramic dinner plate it would give off infrared light waves ?”

Yes! Just like a ceramic mug being filled with hot coffee, a ceramic plate would absorb heat energy and radiate that energy. You can see that infrared light with an infrared camera. But how does this work? For that, we need to understand a little more about electromagnetic radiation: and by “radiation,” think of a thing that “radiates a shine” or even “broadcasts” from its source.

The Science Behind Electromagnetic Radiation

What is Electromagnetic Radiation? Fun Energy Facts Series – Part 9 | Bounce Energy Blog

To begin with, heat is energy that can be spontaneously transferred from one object to another. Humans experience heat through its effects (hot air, hot liquids, hot coffee mugs). When heat is applied to a substance, its atoms vibrate and collide and radiate heat. Since everything above absolute 0° Kelvin (-459.67 °F) has vibrating atoms, everything therefore emits thermal radiation. (Remember those sodium atoms cooled to 177/1 billionth of a degree above Zero° K that turned into that weird a Bose-Einstein Condensate stuff?)

Ideally, at a constant temperature, an object emits electromagnetic radiation (Max Planck’s black body radiation) just because its atoms absorb the ambient thermal energy, vibrate, and emit that energy back out.

Therefore, the hotter a thing gets, the more energy it needs to dissipate to go back to a thermal equilibrium state. When an atom’s electron reaches a high enough energized state, it dumps most of its energy by emitting a photon. The photon rushes off, allowing the electron to fall to a lower energy state.

Even though we see photons all the time, they are really a weird kind of electromagnetic radiation. They have no mass, exist at any temperature above absolute 0°K, have no electric charge, and are simultaneously a particle and a wave. Photons are basically discrete packets of energy. How much energy they have depends on the amount (or packet) passed on to them at their creation.

What Do Photons Actually Do?

What is Electromagnetic Radiation? Fun Energy Facts Series – Part 9 | Bounce Energy Blog

So, if a photon has a certain amount of energy as a particle, it is also traveling in a certain wavelength:

  • If the energy is low, the wavelength may be long, producing a radio wave.
  • At a higher energy level with a slightly shorter wavelength, it will enter the infrared range.
  • With more energy, the wavelengths shorten further to become visible light with certain wavelengths marking out the colors of the rainbow.
  • Add in higher energy to the photon and the wavelength shortens further to where it is invisible again — into the ultraviolet range and beyond.

What is Electromagnetic Radiation? Fun Energy Facts Series – Part 9 | Bounce Energy Blog

If we examine infrared heat lamps – the sort I’d use in my chicken coop – photons strike an object, and the photons are absorbed by the object’s electrons. This raises the electrons’ energy level, causing vibrations and collisions with other atoms, and increasing the object’s temperature.

So you see, photons are more than light. In fact, you could argue that there’s more to light, heat, and energy than you actually can see, but that’s a discussion for another post.

Do you have any recommendations for future installments of the Fun Energy Facts series? Let us know in the comments!

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