Technological Applications of Electromagnetic Waves

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Lesson Transcript
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.

Expert Contributor
Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

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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Additional Activities

Electromagnetic Research

In this research project, students will make a short video explaining how one technology, that relies on electromagnetic waves, works. Students can use their phone, a computer, or tablet to record themselves, then edit the software in many different programs, such as iMovie, or even social media platforms, like Instagram. If a recording device is not available or not appropriate for students, have students put on a presentation for a small audience.

For example, students might choose to research how an X-ray machine is used to take pictures of people's bones. Students would explain what an X-ray machine is used for, how it works scientifically, and how it uses electromagnetic waves. Students can use diagrams, images, or other clips in their short video. After students are done, they can even upload their video to YouTube or other broadcasting apps to share it with the world.

Student Instructions

In the lesson, you learned about the different applications of electromagnetic waves. Now it's time to expand your knowledge and share it with the world. In this creative assignment, you will be creating a short video (less than 5 minutes) on one application of electromagnetic waves. In your video, you should explain the purpose of the technology you chose to research, how electromagnetic waves are used, and how the technology works scientifically. Your video should be interesting and visually appealing. Consider writing a script out first and editing your raw video to add special effects, clips from other videos, or B-roll footage of the technology itself. Consult the criteria for success to make sure your video has everything it needs. When you're done, consider uploading your video to a publication platform like YouTube to share your information with the world.

Criteria For Success

  • Video is between 3 to 5 minutes long
  • Video is interesting, attractive and entertaining to watch
  • Video is edited and looks professional
  • Video explains the purpose of one technology, the role of electromagnetic waves and the way it works scientifically

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