Electromagnetic Spectrum - Real-life applications

Electromagnetic Spectrum Real Life Applications 2991
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The Radio Sub-Spectrum

Among the most familiar parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, in modern life at least, is radio. In most schematic representations of the spectrum, radio waves are shown either at the left end or the bottom, as an indication of the fact that these are the electromagnetic waves with the lowest frequencies, the longest wavelengths, and the smallest levels of photon energy. Included in this broad sub-spectrum, with frequencies up to about 10 7 Hertz, are long-wave radio, short-wave radio, and microwaves. The areas of communication affected are many: broadcast radio, television, mobile phones, radar—and even highly specific forms of technology such as baby monitors.

Though the work of Maxwell and Hertz was foundational to the harnessing of radio waves for human use, the practical use of radio had its beginnings with Marconi. During the 1890s, he made the first radio transmissions, and, by the end of the century, he had succeeded in transmitting telegraph messages across the Atlantic Ocean—a feat which earned him the Nobel Prize for physics in 1909.

Marconi's spark transmitters could send only coded messages, and due to the broad, long-wave length signals used, only a few stations could broadcast at the same time. The development of the electron tube in the early years of the twentieth century, however, made it possible to transmit narrower signals on stable frequencies. This, in turn, enabled the development of technology for sending speech and music over the airwaves.

Broadcast Radio


A radio signal is simply a carrier: the process of adding information—that is, complex sounds such as those of speech or music—is called modulation. The first type of modulation developed was AM, or amplitude modulation, which Canadian-American physicist Reginald Aubrey Fessenden (1866-1932) demonstrated with the first United States radio broadcast in 1906. Amplitude modulation varies the instantaneous amplitude of the radio wave, a function of the radio station's power, as a means of transmitting information.

By the end of World War I, radio had emerged as a popular mode of communication: for the first time in history, entire nations could hear the same sounds at the same time. During the 1930s, radio became increasingly important, both for entertainment and information. Families in the era of the Great Depression would gather around large "cathedral radios"—so named for their size and shape—to hear comedy programs, soap operas, news programs, and speeches by important public figures such as President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Throughout this era—indeed, for more than a half-century from the end of the first World War to the height of the Vietnam Conflict in the mid-1960s—AM held a dominant position in radio. This remained the case despite a number of limitations inherent in amplitude modulation: AM broadcasts flickered with popping noises from lightning, for instance, and cars with AM radios tended to lose their signal when going under a bridge. Yet, another mode of radio transmission was developed in the 1930s, thanks to American inventor and electrical engineer Edwin H. Armstrong (1890-1954). This was FM, or frequency modulation, which varied the radio signal's frequency rather than its amplitude.

Not only did FM offer a different type of modulation; it was on an entirely different frequency range. Whereas AM is an example of a long-wave radio transmission, FM is on the microwave sector of the electromagnetic spectrum, along with television and radar. Due to its high frequency and form of modulation, FM offered a "clean" sound as compared with AM. The addition of FM stereo broadcasts in the 1950s offered still further improvements; yet despite the advantages of FM, audiences were slow to change, and FM did not become popular until the mid-to late 1960s.


AM signals have much longer wavelengths, and smaller frequencies, than do FM signals, and this, in turn, affects the means by which AM signals are propagated. There are, of course, much longer radio wavelengths; hence, AM signals are described as intermediate in wavelength. These intermediate-wavelength signals reflect off highly charged layers in the ionosphere between 25 and 200 mi (40-332 km) above Earth's surface. Short-wave-length signals, such as those of FM, on the other hand, follow a straight-line path. As a result, AM broadcasts extend much farther than FM, particularly at night.

At a low level in the ionosphere is the D layer, created by the Sun when it is high in the sky. The D layer absorbs medium-wavelength signals during the day, and for this reason, AM signals do not travel far during daytime hours. After the Sun goes down, however, the D layer soon fades, and this makes it possible for AM signals to reflect off a much higher layer of the ionosphere known as the F layer. (This is also sometimes known as the Heaviside layer, or the Kennelly-Heaviside layer, after English physicist Oliver Heaviside and British-American electrical engineer Arthur Edwin Kennelly, who independently discovered the ionosphere in 1902.) AM signals "bounce" off the F layer as though it were a mirror, making it possible for a listener at night to pick up a signal from halfway across the country.

The Sun has other effects on long-wave and intermediate-wave radio transmissions. Sunspots, or dark areas that appear on the Sun in cycles of about 11 years, can result in a heavier buildup of the ionosphere than normal, thus impeding radio-signal propagation. In addition, occasional bombardment of Earth by charged particles from the Sun can also disrupt transmissions.

Due to the high frequencies of FM signals, these do not reflect off the ionosphere; instead, they are received as direct waves. For this reason, an FM station has a fairly short broadcast range, and this varies little with regard to day or night. The limited range of FM stations as compared to AM means that there is much less interference on the FM dial than for AM.

Distribution of Radio Frequencies

In the United States and most other countries, one cannot simply broadcast at will; the airwaves are regulated, and, in America, the governing authority is the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC, established in 1934, was an outgrowth of the Federal Radio Commission, founded by Congress seven years earlier. The FCC actually "sells air," charging companies a fee to gain rights to a certain frequency. Those companies may in turn sell that air to others for a profit.

At the time of the FCC's establishment, AM was widely used, and the federal government assigned AM stations the frequency range of 535 kHz to 1.7 MHz. Thus, if an AM station today is called, for instance, "AM 640," this means that it operates at 640 kHz on the dial. The FCC assigned the range of 5.9 to 26.1 MHz to short-wave radio, and later the area of 26.96 to 27.41 MHz to citizens' band (CB) radio. Above these are microwave regions assigned to television stations, as well as FM, which occupies the range from 88 to 108 MHz.

The organization of the electromagnetic spectrum's radio frequencies—which, of course, is an entirely arbitrary, humanmade process—is fascinating. It includes assigned frequencies for everything from garage-door openers to deep-space radio communications. The FCC recognizes seven divisions of radio carriers, using a system that is not so much based on rational rules as it is on the way that the communications industries happened to develop over time.


Most of what has so far been described falls under the heading of "Public Fixed Radio Services": AM and FM radio, other types of radio such as shortwave, television, various other forms of microwave broadcasting, satellite systems, and communication systems for federal departments and agencies. "Public Mobile Services" include pagers, air-to-ground service (for example, aircraft-to-tower communications), offshore service for sailing vessels, and rural radio-telephone service. "Commercial Mobile Radio Services" is the realm of cellular phones, and "Personal Communications Service" that of the newer wireless technology that began to challenge cellular for market dominance in the late 1990s.

"Private Land Mobile Radio Service" (PMR) and "Private Operational-Fixed Microwave Services" (OFS) are rather difficult to distinguish, the principal difference being that the former is used exclusively by profit-making businesses, and the latter mostly by nonprofit institutions. An example of PMR technology is the dispatching radios used by taxis, but this is only one of the more well-known forms of internal electronic communications for industry. For instance, when a film production company is shooting a picture and the director needs to speak to someone at the producer's trailer a mile away, she may use PMR radio technology. OFS was initially designated purely for nonprofit use, and is used often by schools; but banks and other profit-making institutions often use OFS because of its low cost.

Finally, there is the realm of "Personal Radio Services," created by the FCC in 1992. This branch, still in its infancy, will probably one day include video-on-demand, interactive polling, online shopping and banking, and other activities classified under the heading of Interactive Video and Data Services, or IVDS. Unlike other types of video technology, these will all be wireless, and, therefore, represent a telecommunications revolution all their own.



Though microwaves are treated separately from radio waves, in fact, they are just radio signals of a very short wavelength. As noted earlier, FM signals are actually carried on microwaves, and, as with FM in particular, microwave signals in general are very clear and very strong, but do not extend over a great geographical area. Nor does microwave include only high-frequency radio and television; in fact, any type of information that can be transmitted via telephone wires or coaxial cables can also be sent via a microwave circuit.

Microwaves have a very narrow, focused beam: thus, the signal is amplified considerably when an antenna receives it. This phenomenon, known as "high antenna gain," means that microwave transmitters need not be highly powerful to produce a strong signal. To further the reach of microwave broadcasts, transmitters are often placed atop mountain peaks, hilltops, or tall buildings. In the past, a microwave-transmitting network such as NBC (National Broadcasting Company) or CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System) required a network of ground-based relay stations to move its signal across the continent. The advent of satellite broadcasting in the 1960s, however, changed much about the way signals are beamed: today, networks typically replace, or at least augment, ground-based relays with satellite relays.

The first worldwide satellite TV broadcast, in the summer of 1967, featured the Beatles singing their latest song "All You Need Is Love." Due to the international character of the broadcast, with an estimated 200 million viewers, John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote a song with simple, universal lyrics, and the result was just another example of electronic communication uniting large populations. Indeed, the phenomenon of rock music, and of superstardom as people know it today, would be impossible without many of the forms of technology discussed here. Long before the TV broadcast, the Beatles had come to fame through the playing of their music on the radio waves—and, thus, they owed much to Maxwell, Hertz, and Marconi.


The same microwaves that transmit FM and television signals—to name only the most obviously applications of microwave for communication—can also be harnessed to cook food. The microwave oven, introduced commercially in 1955, was an outgrowth of military technology developed a decade before.

During World War II, the Raytheon Manufacturing Company had experimented with a magnetron, a device for generating extremely short-wavelength radio signals as a means of improving the efficiency of military radar. While working with a magnetron, a technician named Percy Spencer was surprised to discover that a candy bar in his pocket had melted, even though he had not felt any heat. This led him to considering the possibilities of applying the magnetron to peacetime uses, and a decade later, Raytheon's "radar range" hit the market.

Those early microwave ovens had none of varied power settings to which modern users of the microwave—found today in two-thirds of all American homes—are accustomed. In the first microwaves, the only settings were "on" and "off," because there were only two possible adjustments: either the magnetron would produce, or not produce, microwaves. Today, it is possible to use a microwave for almost anything that involves the heating of food that contains water—from defrosting a steak to popping popcorn.

As noted much earlier, in the general discussion of electromagnetic radiation, there are three basic types of heat transfer: conduction, convection, and radiation. Without going into too much detail here, conduction generally involves heat transfer between molecules in a solid; convection takes place in a fluid (a gas such as air or a liquid such as water); and radiation, of course, requires no medium.

A conventional oven cooks through convection, though conduction also carries heat from the outer layers of a solid (for example, a turkey) to the interior. A microwave, on the other hand, uses radiation to heat the outer layers of the food; then conduction, as with a conventional oven, does the rest. The difference is that the microwave heats only the food—or, more specifically, the water, which then transfers heat throughout the item being heated—and not the dish or plate. Thus, many materials, as long as they do not contain water, can be placed in a microwave oven without being melted or burned. Metal, though it contains no water, is unsafe because the microwaves bounce off the metal surfaces, creating a microwave buildup that can produce sparks and damage the oven.

In a microwave oven, microwaves emitted by a small antenna are directed into the cooking compartment, and as they enter, they pass a set of turning metal fan blades. This is the stirrer, which disperses the microwaves uniformly over the surface of the food to be heated. As a microwave strikes a water molecule, resonance causes the molecule to align with the direction of the wave. An oscillating magnetron causes the microwaves to oscillate as well, and this, in turn, compels the water molecules to do the same. Thus, the water molecules are shifting in position several million times a second, and this vibration generates energy that heats the water.

Radio Waves for Measurement and Ranging


Radio waves can be used to send communication signals, or even to cook food; they can also be used to find and measure things. One of the most obvious applications in this regard is radar, an acronym for RA dio D etection A nd R anging.

Radio makes it possible for pilots to "see" through clouds, rain, fog, and all manner of natural phenomena—not least of which is darkness. It can also identify objects, both natural and manmade, thus enabling a peacetime pilot to avoid hitting another craft or the side of a mountain. On the other hand, radar may help a pilot in wartime to detect the presence of an enemy. Nor is radar used only in the skies, or for military purposes, such as guiding missiles: on the ground, it is used to detect the speeds of objects such as automobiles on an interstate highway, as well as to track storms.

In the simplest model of radar operation, the unit sends out microwaves toward the target, and the waves bounce back off the target to the unit. Though the speed of light is reduced somewhat, due to the fact that waves are traveling through air rather than through a vacuum, it is, nonetheless, possible to account for this difference. Hence, the distance to the target can be calculated using the simple formula d = vt, where d is distance, v is velocity, and t is time.

Typically, a radar system includes the following: a frequency generator and a unit for controlling the timing of signals; a transmitter and, as with broadcast radio, a modulator; a duplexer, which switches back and forth between transmission and reception mode; an antenna; a receiver, which detects and amplifies the signals bounced back to the antenna; signal and data processing units; and data display units. In a monostatic unit—one in which the transmitter and receiver are in the same location—the unit has to be continually switched between sending and receiving modes. Clearly, a bistatic unit—one in which the transmitter and receiver antennas are at different locations—is generally preferable; but on an airplane, for instance, there is no choice but to use a monostatic unit.

In order to determine the range to a target—whether that target be a mountain, an enemy aircraft, or a storm—the target itself must first be detected. This can be challenging, because only a small portion of the transmitted pulse comes back to the receiving antenna. At the same time, the antenna receives reflections from a number of other objects, and it can be difficult to determine which signal comes from the target. For an aircraft in a wartime situation, these problems are compounded by the use of enemy countermeasures such as radar "jamming." Still another difficulty facing a military flyer is the fact that the use of radar itself—that is, the transmission of microwaves—makes the aircraft detectable to opposing forces.


Telemetry is the process of making measurements from a remote location and transmitting those measurements to receiving equipment. The earliest telemetry systems, developed in the United States during the 1880s, monitored the distribution and use of electricity in a given region, and relayed this information back to power companies using telephone lines. By the end of World War I, electric companies used the power lines themselves as information relays, and though such electrical telemetry systems remain in use in some sectors, most modern telemetry systems apply radio signals.

An example of a modern telemetry application is the use of an input device called a transducer to measure information concerning an astronaut's vital signs (heartbeat, blood pressure, body temperature, and so on) during a manned space flight. The transducer takes this information and converts it into an electrical impulse, which is then beamed to the space monitoring station on Earth. Because this signal carries information, it must be modulated, but there is little danger of interference with broadcast transmissions on Earth. Typically, signals from spacecraft are sent in a range above 10 10 Hz, far above the frequencies of most microwave transmissions for commercial purposes.

Light: Invisible, Visible, and Invisible Again

Between about 10 13 and 10 17 Hz on the electromagnetic spectrum is the range of light: infrared, visible, and ultraviolet. Light actually constitutes a small portion of the spectrum, and the area of visible light is very small indeed, extending from about 4.3 · 10 14 to 7.5 · 10 14 Hz. The latter, incidentally, is another example of scientific notation: not only is it easier not to use a string of zeroes, but where a coefficient or factor (for example, 4.3 or 7.5) is other than a multiple of 10, it is preferable to use what are called significant figures—usually a single digit followed by a decimal point and up to 3 decimal places.

Infrared light lies just below visible light in frequency, and this is easy to remember because of the name: red is the lowest in frequency of all the colors. Similarly, ultraviolet lies beyond the highest-frequency color, violet. Visible light itself, by far the most familiar part of the spectrum—especially prior to the age of radio communications—is discussed in detail elsewhere.


Though we cannot see infrared light, we feel it as heat. German-English astronomer William Herschel (1738-1822), first scientist to detect infrared radiation from the Sun, demonstrated its existence in 1800 by using a thermometer. Holding a prism, a three-dimensional glass shape used for diffusing beams of light, he directed a beam of sunlight toward the thermometer, which registered the heat of the infrared rays.

Eighty years later, English scientist Sir William Abney (1843-1920) developed infrared photography, a method of capturing infrared radiation, rather than visible light, on film. By the mid-twentieth century, infrared photography had come into use for a variety of purposes. Military forces, for instance, may use infrared to

Richard T. Nowitz/Corbis
. Reproduced by permission.)
detect the presence of enemy troops. Medicine makes use of infrared photography for detecting tumors, and astronomers use infrared to detect stars too dim to be seen using ordinary visible light.

The uses of infrared imaging in astronomy, as a matter of fact, are many. The development in the 1980s of infrared arrays, two-dimensional grids which produce reliable images of infrared phenomena, revolutionized infrared astronomy. Because infrared penetrates dust much more easily than does visible light, infrared astronomy makes it easier to see regions of the universe where stars—formed from collapsing clouds of gas and dust—are in the process of developing. Because hydrogen molecules emit infrared radiation, infrared astronomy helps provide clues regarding the distribution of this highly significant chemical element throughout the universe.


Very little of the Sun's ultraviolet light penetrates Earth's atmosphere—a fortunate thing, since ultraviolet (UV) radiation can be very harmful to human skin. A suntan, as a matter of fact, is actually the skin's defense against these harmful UV rays. Due to the fact that Earth is largely opaque, or resistant, to ultraviolet light, the most significant technological applications of UV radiation are found in outer space.

In 1978 the United States, in cooperation with several European space agencies, launched the International Ultraviolet Explorer (IUE), which measured the UV radiation from tens of thousands of stars, nebulae, and galaxies. Despite the progress made with IUE, awareness of its limitations—including a mirror of only 17 in (45 cm) on the telescope itself—led to the development of a replacement in 1992.

This was the Extreme Ultraviolet Explorer (EUVE), which could observe UV phenomena over a much higher range of wavelengths than those observed by IUE. In addition, the Hubble Space Telescope, launched by the United States in 1990, includes a UV instrument called the Goddard High Resolution Spectrograph. With a mirror measuring 8.5 ft (2.6 m), it is capable of observing objects much more faint than those detected earlier by IUE.

Ultraviolet astronomy is used to study the winds created by hot stars, as well as stars still in the process of forming, and even stars that are dying. It is also useful for analyzing the densely packed, highly active sectors near the centers of galaxies, where both energy and temperatures are extremely high.

X Rays

Though they are much higher in frequency than visible light—with wavelengths about 1,000 times shorter than for ordinary light rays—x rays are a familiar part of modern life due to their uses in medicine. German scientist Wilhelm Röntgen (1845-1923) developed the first x-ray device in 1895, and, thus, the science of using xray machines is called roentgenology.

The new invention became a curiosity, with carnivals offering patrons an opportunity to look at the insides of their hands. And just as many people today fear the opportunities for invasion of privacy offered by computer technology, many at the time worried that x rays would allow robbers and peeping toms to look into people's houses. Soon, however, it became clear that the most important application of x rays lay in medicine.


Due to their very short wavelengths, x rays can pass through substances of low density—for example, fat and other forms of soft tissue—without their movement being interrupted. But in materials of higher density, such as bone, atoms are packed closely together, and this provides x rays with less space through which to travel. As a result, x-ray images show dark areas where the rays traveled completely through the target, and light images of dense materials that blocked the movement of the rays.

Medical x-ray machines are typically referred to either as "hard" or "soft." Soft x rays are the ones with which most people are more familiar. Operating at a relatively low frequency, these are used to photograph bones and internal organs, and provided the patient does not receive prolonged exposure to the rays, they cause little damage. Hard x rays, on the other hand, are designed precisely to cause damage—not to the patient, but to cancer cells. Because they use high voltage and high-frequency rays, hard x rays can be quite dangerous to the patient as well.


X-ray crystallography, developed in the early twentieth century, is devoted to the study of the interference patterns produced by x rays passing through materials that are crystalline in Structure. Each of these discoveries, in turn, transformed daily life: insulin, by offering hope to diabetics, penicillin, by providing a treatment for a number of previously fatal illnesses, and DNA, by enabling scientists to make complex assessments of genetic information.

In addition to the medical applications, the scanning capabilities of x-ray machines make them useful for security. A healthy person receives an x ray at a doctor's office only once in a while; but everyone who carries items past a certain point in a major airport must submit to x-ray security scanning. If one is carrying a purse or briefcase, for instance, this is placed on a moving belt and subjected to scanning by a low-power device that can reveal the contents.

Gamma Rays

At the furthest known reaches of the electromagnetic spectrum are gamma rays, ultra high-frequency, high-energy, and short-wavelength forms of radiation. Human understanding of gamma rays, including the awesome powers they contain, is still in its infancy.

In 1979, a wave of enormous energy passed over the Solar System. Though its effects on Earth were negligible, instruments aboard several satellites provided data concerning an enormous quantity of radiation caused by gamma rays. As to the source of the rays themselves, believed to be a product of nuclear fusion on some other body in the universe, scientists knew nothing.

The Compton Gamma Ray Observatory Satellite, launched by NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) in 1991, detected a number of gamma-ray bursts over the next two years. The energy in these bursts was staggering: just one of these, scientists calculated, contained more than a thousand times as much energy as the Sun will generate in its entire lifetime of 10 billion years.

Some astronomers speculate that the source of these gamma-ray bursts may ultimately be a distant supernova, or exploding star. If this is the case, scientists may have found the supernova; but do not expect to see it in the night sky. It is not known just how long ago it exploded, but its light appeared on Earth some 340,000 years ago, and during that time it was visible in daylight for more than two years. So great was its power that the effects of this stellar phenomenon are still being experienced.


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