Absorption (electromagnetic radiation)

An overview of electromagnetic radiation absorption. This example discusses the general principle using visible light as specific example. A white light source — emitting light of multiple wavelengths — is focused on a sample (the pairs of complementary colors are indicated by the yellow dotted lines). Upon striking the sample, photons that match the energy gap of the molecules present (green light in this example) are absorbed, exciting the molecules. Other photons are transmitted unaffected and, if the radiation is in the visible region (400–700 nm), the transmitted light appears as the complementary color (here red). By recording the attenuation of light for various wavelengths, an absorption spectrum can be obtained.

In physics, absorption of electromagnetic radiation is the way in which the energy of a photon is taken up by matter, typically the electrons of an atom. Thus, the electromagnetic energy is transformed into internal energy of the absorber, for example thermal energy.[1] The reduction in intensity of a light wave propagating through a medium by absorption of a part of its photons is often called attenuation. Usually, the absorption of waves does not depend on their intensity (linear absorption), although in certain conditions (usually, in optics), the medium changes its transparency dependently on the intensity of waves going through, and saturable absorption (or nonlinear absorption) occurs.


Quantifying absorptionEdit

There are a number of ways to quantify how quickly and effectively radiation is absorbed in a certain medium, for example:

All these quantities measure, at least to some extent, how well a medium absorbs radiation. However, practitioners of different fields and techniques tend to conventionally use different quantities drawn from the list above.

Measuring absorptionEdit

The absorbance of an object quantifies how much of the incident light is absorbed by it (instead of being reflected or refracted). This may be related to other properties of the object through the Beer–Lambert law.

Precise measurements of the absorbance at many wavelengths allow the identification of a substance via absorption spectroscopy, where a sample is illuminated from one side, and the intensity of the light that exits from the sample in every direction is measured. A few examples of absorption are ultraviolet–visible spectroscopy, infrared spectroscopy, and X-ray absorption spectroscopy.


Rough plot of Earth's atmospheric transmittance (or opacity) to various wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation, including visible light.

Understanding and measuring the absorption of electromagnetic radiation has a variety of applications. Here are a few examples:

  • In meteorology and climatology, global and local temperatures depend in part on the absorption of radiation by atmospheric gases (such as in the greenhouse effect) and land and ocean surfaces (see albedo).
  • In medicine, X-rays are absorbed to different extents by different tissues (bone in particular), which is the basis for X-ray imaging. For example, see computation of radiowave attenuation in the atmosphere used in satellite link design.
  • In chemistry and materials science, because different materials and molecules will absorb radiation to different extents at different frequencies, which allows for material identification.
  • In optics, sunglasses, colored filters, dyes, and other such materials are designed specifically with respect to which visible wavelengths they absorb, and in what proportions.
  • In biology, photosynthetic organisms require that light of the appropriate wavelengths be absorbed within the active area of chloroplasts, so that the light energy can be converted into chemical energy within sugars and other molecules.
  • In physics, the D-region of Earth's ionosphere is known to significantly absorb radio signals that fall within the high-frequency electromagnetic spectrum.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ West, William. "Absorption of electromagnetic radiation". AccessScience. McGraw-Hill. Retrieved 8 April 2013.