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Physics LibreTexts

16: Electromagnetic Waves

  • Page ID
    4455
  • In this chapter, we explain Maxwell’s theory and show how it leads to his prediction of electromagnetic waves. We use his theory to examine what electromagnetic waves are, how they are produced, and how they transport energy and momentum. We conclude by summarizing some of the many practical applications of electromagnetic waves.

    • 16.0: Prelude to Electromagnetic Waves
      Theory predicted the general phenomenon of electromagnetic waves before anyone realized that light is a form of an electromagnetic wave. In the mid-nineteenth century, James Clerk Maxwell formulated a single theory combining all the electric and magnetic effects known at that time. Maxwell’s equations, summarizing this theory, predicted the existence of electromagnetic waves that travel at the speed of light. His theory also predicted how these waves behave and carry both energy and momentum.
    • 16.1: Maxwell’s Equations and Electromagnetic Waves
      James Clerk Maxwell (1831–1879) was one of the major contributors to physics in the nineteenth century. Although he died young, he made major contributions to the development of the kinetic theory of gases, to the understanding of color vision, and to the nature of Saturn’s rings. He is  best known for having combined existing knowledge of the laws of electricity and of magnetism with insights of his own into a complete overarching electromagnetic theory, represented by Maxwell’s equations.
    • 16.2: Plane Electromagnetic Waves
      Mechanical waves travel through a medium such as a string, water, or air. Perhaps the most significant prediction of Maxwell’s equations is the existence of combined electric and magnetic (or electromagnetic) fields that propagate through space as electromagnetic waves. Because Maxwell’s equations hold in free space, the predicted electromagnetic waves, unlike mechanical waves, do not require a medium for their propagation.
    • 16.3: Energy Carried by Electromagnetic Waves
      Electromagnetic waves bring energy into a system by virtue of their electric and magnetic fields. These fields can exert forces and move charges in the system and, thus, do work on them. However, there is energy in an electromagnetic wave itself, whether it is absorbed or not. Once created, the fields carry energy away from a source. If some energy is later absorbed, the field strengths are diminished and anything left travels on.
    • 16.4: Momentum and Radiation Pressure
      Material objects consist of charged particles. An electromagnetic wave incident on the object exerts forces on the charged particles, in accordance with the Lorentz force. These forces do work on the particles of the object, increasing its energy, as discussed in the previous section. The energy that sunlight carries is a familiar part of every warm sunny day.
    • 16.5: The Electromagnetic Spectrum
      Electromagnetic waves have a vast range of practical everyday applications that includes such diverse uses as communication by cell phone and radio broadcasting, WiFi, cooking, vision, medical imaging, and treating cancer. In this module, we discuss how electromagnetic waves are classified into categories such as radio, infrared, ultraviolet, and so on. We also summarize some of the main applications for each range.
    • 16.A: Electromagnetic Waves (Answer)
    • 16.E: Electromagnetic Waves (Exercises)
    • 16.S: Electromagnetic Waves (Summary)