Thermal radiation, Overview

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Thermal radiation is electromagnetic radiation generated by the thermal motion of charged particles in matter. All matter with a temperature greater than absolute zero emits thermal radiation. When the temperature of the body is greater than absolute zero, interatomic collisions cause the kinetic energy of the atoms or molecules to change. This results in charge-acceleration and/or dipole oscillation which produces electromagnetic radiation, and the wide spectrum of radiation reflects the wide spectrum of energies and accelerations that occur even at a single temperature.


Thermal radiation is the emission of electromagnetic waves from all matter that has a temperature greater than absolute zero. It represents a conversion of thermal energy into electromagnetic energy. Thermal energy results in kinetic energy in the random movements of atoms and molecules in matter. All matter with a temperature by definition is composed of particles which have kinetic energy, and which interact with each other. These atoms and molecules are composed of charged particles, i.e., protons and electrons, and kinetic interactions among matter particles result in charge-acceleration and dipole-oscillation. This results in the electrodynamic generation of coupled electric and magnetic fields, resulting in the emission of photons, radiating energy away from the body through its surface boundary. Electromagnetic radiation, including light, does not require the presence of matter to propagate and travels in the vacuum of space infinitely far if unobstructed.

The characteristics of thermal radiation depend on various properties of the surface it is emanating from, including its temperature, its spectral absorptivity and spectral emissive power, as expressed by Kirchhoff's law. The radiation is not monochromatic, i.e., it does not consist of just a single frequency, but comprises a continuous dispersion of photon energies, its characteristic spectrum. If the radiating body and its surface are in thermodynamic equilibrium and the surface has perfect absorptivity at all wavelengths, it is characterized as a black body. A black body is also a perfect emitter. The radiation of such perfect emitters is called black-body radiation. The ratio of any body's emission relative to that of a black body is the body's emissivity, so that a black body has an emissivity of unity.

Absorptivity, reflectivity, and emissivity of all bodies are dependent on the wavelength of the radiation. The temperature determines the wavelength distribution of the electromagnetic radiation. For example, fresh snow, which is highly reflective to visible light (reflectivity about 0.90), appears white due to reflecting sunlight with a peak wavelength of about 0.5 micrometers. Its emissivity, however, at a temperature of about -5 °C, peak wavelength of about 12 micrometers, is 0.99.

The distribution of power that a black body emits with varying frequency is described by Planck's law. At any given temperature, there is a frequency fmax at which the power emitted is a maximum. Wien's displacement law, and the fact that the frequency of light is inversely proportional to its wavelength in vacuum, mean that the peak frequency fmax is proportional to the absolute temperature T of the black body. The photosphere of the sun, at a temperature of approximately 6000 K, emits radiation principally in the (humanly) visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Earth's atmosphere is partly transparent to visible light, and the light reaching the surface is absorbed or reflected. Earth's surface emits the absorbed radiation, approximating the behavior of a black body at 300 K with spectral peak at fmax. At these lower frequencies, the atmosphere is largely opaque and radiation from Earth's surface is absorbed or scattered by the atmosphere. Though some radiation escapes into space, most is absorbed and subsequently re-emitted by atmospheric gases. It is this spectral selectivity of the atmosphere that is responsible for the planetary greenhouse effect, contributing to global warming and climate change in general (but also critically contributing to climate stability when the composition and properties of the atmosphere are not changing).

The common household incandescent light bulb has a spectrum overlapping the black body spectra of the sun and the earth. Some of the photons emitted by a tungsten light bulb filament at 3000 K are in the visible spectrum. However, most of the energy is associated with photons of longer wavelengths; these do not help a person see, but still transfer heat to the environment, as can be deduced empirically by observing a household incandescent light bulb. Whenever EM radiation is emitted and then absorbed, heat is transferred. This principle is used in microwave ovens, laser cutting, and RF hair removal.

Unlike conductive and convective forms of heat transfer, thermal radiation can be concentrated in a tiny spot by using reflecting mirrors. Concentrating solar power takes advantage of this fact. In many such systems, mirrors are employed to concentrate sunlight into a smaller area. In lieu of mirrors, Fresnel lenses can also be used to concentrate heat flux. (In principle, any kind of lens can be used, but only the Fresnel lens design is practical for very large lenses.) Either method can be used to quickly vaporize water into steam using sunlight. For example, the sunlight reflected from mirrors heats the PS10 Solar Power Plant, and during the day it can heat water to 285 °C (558.15 K) or 545 °F.

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External Links

  • WikipediaBlack Body Emission CalculatorHeat TransferThermal RadiationAtmospheric RadiationInfrared Temperature Calibration 101

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