OCR AS Physics

Revision Notes

4.7.1 The Electromagnetic Spectrum

Properties of Electromagnetic Waves

  • Visible light is just one part of a much bigger spectrum: The Electromagnetic Spectrum
  • All electromagnetic waves have the following properties in common:
    • They are all transverse waves
    • They can all travel in a vacuum
    • They all travel at the same speed in a vacuum (free space) — the speed of light
  • The speed of light in air is approximately the same as in a vacuum


EM wave, downloadable AS & A Level Physics revision notes

Oscillating electric and magnetic fields in an electromagnetic wave

  • These transverse waves consist of electric and magnetic fields oscillating at right angles to each other and to the direction in which the wave is travelling (in 3D space)
  • Since they are transverse, all waves in this spectrum can:
    • Reflect
    • Refract
    • Diffract
    • Be polarised
    • Produce interference patterns

The Electromagnetic Spectrum

  • The electromagnetic spectrum (EM) is arranged in a specific order based on the wavelengths or frequencies
  • This order is shown in the diagram below from longest wavelength (lowest frequency) to shortest wavelength (highest frequency)


EM spectrum diagram, downloadable AS & A Level Physics revision notes

Energy, wavelength and frequency for each part of the electromagnetic spectrum

  • The higher the frequency, the higher the energy of the radiation
  • Radiation with higher energy is highly ionising and is harmful to cells and tissues causing cancer (e.g. UV, X-rays, Gamma rays)

Uses of EM Waves

  • Electromagnetic waves have a large number of uses
  • The main uses are summarised in the table below:

Uses of EM waves, downloadable AS & A Level Physics revision notes

Wavelengths in the Electromagnetic Spectrum

  • The approximate wavelengths in a vacuum of each radiation are listed in the table below:

Table of EM spectrum wavelengths and frequencies

Table of EM spectrum wavelengths and frequencies, downloadable AS & A Level Physics revision notes

  • To alternatively find the range of frequencies, convert the wavelengths using the wave equation: c = fλ where c is the speed of light: 3.0 × 108 m s-1

Worked Example

A is a source emitting microwaves and B is a source emitting X-rays.

The table suggests the frequencies for A and B.

Which row is correct?

Worked example - wavelength and frequency (2), downloadable AS & A Level Physics revision notes

Exam Tip

You will be expected to memorise the range of wavelengths for each type of radiation, however, you don’t need to learn the frequency ranges by heart.

Since all EM waves travel at the speed of light, you can convert between frequency and wavelength using the wave equation in an exam question.


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