Radiant energy

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File:Trees and sunshine.JPG
Light (a form of radiant energy) observed in a forest

Radiant energy is the energy of electromagnetic waves, or sometimes of other forms of radiation.[1] The quantity of radiant energy may be calculated by integrating radiant flux (or power) with respect to time and, like all forms of energy, its SI unit is the joule. The term is used particularly when radiation is emitted by a source into the surrounding environment.

Terminology use and history

The term "radiant energy" is most commonly used in the fields of radiometry, solar energy, heating and lighting, but is also sometimes used in other fields (such as telecommunications). Radiant energy may or may not affect the eye and produce vision.[2] In modern applications involving transmission of power from one location to another, "radiant energy" is sometimes used to refer to the electromagnetic waves themselves, rather than their energy (a property of the waves). In the past, the term "electro-radiant energy" has also been used.[3]

Historically, the propagation of electromagnetic radiation was presumed to rely on a medium filling all space, known as the aether.[4][5][6] Electromagnetic waves were presumed to propagate through this medium by inducing transverse electric and magnetic stresses and strains, analogous to those induced by shear waves propagating through a physical medium.[7] In modern times, the propagation of electromagnetic waves has been shown not to require any physical medium, although some interpretations of general relativity can be viewed as implying that space acts as a kind of non-physical "medium" for light.[8][9]


Cherenkov radiation glowing in the core of a TRIGA reactor.

Because electromagnetic (EM) radiation can be conceptualized as a stream of photons, radiant energy can be viewed as the energy carried by these photons. Alternatively, EM radiation can be viewed as an electromagnetic wave, which carries energy in its oscillating electric and magnetic fields. These two views are completely equivalent and are reconciled to one another in quantum field theory (see wave-particle duality).

EM radiation can have various frequencies. The bands of frequency present in a given EM signal may be sharply defined, as is seen in atomic spectra, or may be broad, as in blackbody radiation. In the photon picture, the energy carried by each photon is proportional to its frequency. In the wave picture, the energy of a monochromatic wave is proportional to its intensity. This implies that if two EM waves have the same intensity, but different frequencies, the one with the higher frequency "contains" fewer photons, since each photon is more energetic.

When EM waves are absorbed by an object, the energy of the waves is typically converted to heat. This is a very familiar effect, since sunlight warms surfaces that it irradiates. Often this phenomenon is associated particularly with infrared radiation, but any kind of electromagnetic radiation will warm an object that absorbs it. EM waves can also be reflected or scattered, in which case their energy is redirected or redistributed as well.

Open systems

Radiant energy is one of the mechanisms by which energy can enter or leave an open system.[10][11][12] Such a system can be man-made, such as a solar energy collector, or natural, such as the Earth's atmosphere. In geophysics, transparent greenhouse gases trap the sun's radiant energy (at certain wavelengths), allowing it to penetrate deep into the atmosphere or all the way to the Earth's surface, where they are re-emitted as longer wavelength radiation (chiefly infrared radiation). Radiant energy is produced in the sun as a result of nuclear fusion.[13]


Radiant energy, as well as convective energy and conductive energy, is used for radiant heating.[14] It can be generated electrically by infrared lamps, or can be absorbed from sunlight and used to heat water. The heat energy is emitted from a warm element (floor, wall, overhead panel) and warms people and other objects in rooms rather than directly heating the air. The internal air temperature for radiant heated buildings may be lower than for a conventionally heated building to achieve the same level of body comfort (the perceived temperature is actually the same).

Photoelectric motor, US685957
Radiant energy falling on a insulated conductor connected to a capacitor: the capacitor charges electrically.

Various other applications of radiant energy have been devised.[15] These include:

  • Treatment and inspection
  • Separating and sorting
  • Medium of control
  • Medium of communication

Many of these applications involve a source of radiant energy and a detector that responds to that radiation and provides a signal representing some characteristic of the radiation. Radiant energy detectors produce responses to incident radiant energy either as an increase or decrease in electric potential or current flow or some other perceivable change, such as exposure of photographic film.

One of the earliest wireless telephones to be based on radiant energy was invented by Nikola Tesla. The device used transmitters and receivers whose resonances were tuned to the same frequency, allowing communication between them. In 1916, he recounted an experiment he had done in 1896.[16] He recalled that "Whenever I received the effects of a transmitter, one of the simplest ways [to detect the wireless transmissions] was to apply a magnetic field to currents generated in a conductor, and when I did so, the low frequency gave audible notes."

SI radiometry units

Template:SI radiometry units

See also

Main concepts
Luminous energy, Power, Radiometry, Federal Standard 1037C, Transmission, Electrostatics, Ionizing radiation, Non-ionizing radiation
Photoelectric effect, Open system, Cosmic microwave background radiation
Photonic devices
Photodetector, Photocell, Photoelectric cell

Template:Radio spectrum Template:EMSpectrum


  1. "Radiant energy". Federal standard 1037C
  2. George Frederick Barker, Physics: Advanced Course, page 367
  3. Examples: Template:Patent, Template:Patent, and Template:Patent.
  4. Thomas Preston, "The Theory of Light". Macmillan, 1901. Page 542.
  5. George Frederick Barker, Physics: Advanced Course, page 365.
  6. Frederick Booth, Radiant Energy and the Ophthalmic Lens.
  7. Bell, Louis (1901). Electric Power Transmission; a Practical Treatise for Practical Men. Electrical World and Engineer. pp. p. 10. Retrieved 2007-02-15.
  8. Albert Einstein said that space is "endowed with physical quantities," but that "this ether may not be thought of as endowed with the quality characteristic of ponderable media [...] The idea of motion may not be applied to it." (from "Ether and the Theory of Relativity", an address delivered 1920-05-05 at the University of Leyden).
  9. P.A.M. Dirac, "Is there an ether?" Nature, 168, 906 (1951). Dirac wrote, "We have now the velocity at all points of space-time, playing a fundamental part in electrodynamics. It is natural to regard it as the velocity of some real physical thing. Thus with the new theory of electrodynamics we are rather forced to have an ether."
  10. Moran, M.J. and Shapiro, H.N., Fundamentals of Engineering Thermodynamics, Chapter 4. "Mass Conservation for an Open System", 5th Edition, John Wiley and Sons. ISBN 0471274712.
  11. Robert W. Christopherson, Elemental Geosystems, Fourth Edition. Prentice Hall, 2003. Pages 608. ISBN 0131015532
  12. James Grier Miller and Jessie L. Miller, The Earth as a System.
  13. Energy transformation. assets.cambridge.org. (excerpt)
  14. Template:Patent
  15. Class 250, Radiant Energy, USPTO. March 2006.
  16. Anderson, Leland I. (editor), Nikola Tesla On His Work With Alternating Currents and Their Application to Wireless Telegraphy, Telephony and Transmission of Power, 2002, ISBN 1-893817-01-6.

References and further reading

General Information


ca:Energia radiant cs:Energie záření it:Grandezze radiometriche sk:Žiarivá energia

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