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Technological Applications of Electromagnetic Waves Video

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

After completing this lesson, you will be able to explain what electromagnetic waves are and provide some applications of each type of electromagnetic wave. To see just how much you have learned, take the short quiz at the end of the lesson!

What Are Electromagnetic Waves?

Electromagnetic waves are waves that can travel through a vacuum, like in space. This is possible because they're not vibrations in an actual material; they're fluctuations in electric and magnetic fields. Examples of electromagnetic waves include radio waves, microwaves, infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, x-rays, and gamma rays. Radio waves have the lowest energy and frequency and the longest wavelength. Gamma rays have the highest energy and frequency and the shortest wavelength.

All electromagnetic waves move at the speed of light, including light itself. In fact, physicists often use the word 'light' to refer to any kind of electromagnetic wave—even ones we can't see with our eyes.

Applications of Electromagnetic Waves

Every part of the electromagnetic spectrum has multiple applications in our everyday lives, and many of those applications involve technology.

Radio waves are used for communications - that's why the thing in your car is called a radio. But they're not just for FM and AM radio. They're also used to broadcast television signals, and they're how mobile phones work - your voice is sent through radio signals. Radio waves are also used for radar, which is why both words start with the same three letters. Radar is extremely important in military operations and can also be used in speed cameras and speed guns.

Microwaves have probably the most obvious application: in a microwave. Microwaves can be used to heat and cook your food. Since microwaves aren't that different from radio waves, they've also been used for communications, especially for extending TV signals to larger distances.

Infrared waves are what comes out of remote controls. Infrared is also a type of wave that transmits a lot of heat. When you put your hand near to, but not touching, something and it feels warm, it's because of infrared waves coming out of it. All hot objects produce infrared. In fact, you're producing infrared waves right now. Infrared waves can also be used to create heat-sensitive and night-vision cameras.

Ultraviolet waves have their uses too, but they're also a bit of a pain. That's because the sun produces a lot of ultraviolet and is a common cause of skin cancer. When powerful enough, UV can damage your skin. Getting a sun tan might be a fun-sounding use of UV, but because of the risks, it's a bad idea. More positive uses include the fact that UV can sterilize and disinfect medical instruments (or anything else, for that matter), killing bacteria and viruses. And ,UV also lights up fluorescent materials; highlighter pens are brighter and more useful because of this effect. This property can be used to check if money is real or counterfeit by hiding things in it that light up under UV.

X-rays are electromagnetic waves that can be used in aptly named x-ray machines to see inside your body and diagnose various diseases. They can also be used to kill cancer cells.

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