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Light Waves: Types, Parts, and Applications

Rochelle Enrera, David Wood
  • Author
    Rochelle Enrera

    Rochelle has a bachelor's degree in Physics for Teachers from Philippine Normal University-Manila and has completed 30+ units in MS Geology at University of the Philippines-Diliman. She is a licensed teacher and has taught Grade 10 Physics for three years. She has been a science content writer and copywriter for over three years now.

  • 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.

Learn what type of wave describes "light." Understand the parts of a light wave, discover the different types of light waves, and view examples related to them. Updated: 10/06/2021

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Light waves are present in every aspect of human life. From the use of mobile phones, the internet, radios, and television to medical diagnosis and security, light waves have been proven to be an essential part of society today. What are light waves? What kind of waves are light waves? What are their applications?

In this lesson, learn more about light waves, their types, parts, and various applications.

What Are Light Waves?

Light waves, like other types of waves, carry energy from a source. They are composed of discrete particles of energy called photons. Photons are massless, but they carry momentum and energy.

Just like how there are sounds that cannot be heard because they are beyond the human hearing range, there are also forms of light waves that cannot be seen by human eyes. However, properties such as wavelength and frequency are common in all types of waves. Wavelength is the distance between adjacent parts of a wave (e.g., crest to crest or trough to trough). Frequency, on the other hand, refers to the number of waves that pass through a fixed point at a given time. The higher the frequency, the more waves pass through each point and vice versa. Frequency is directly related to energy, where the higher the frequency of the wave, the higher its energy.

Wavelength and frequency are inversely related to each other. Longer wavelengths have lower frequencies while shorter wavelengths have higher frequencies.

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Wavelength and frequency have an inverse relationship.

wavelength and frequency

What Type of Wave is Light?

Light is a transverse wave, where the movement of the particle is perpendicular to the propagation of the wave. It is formed by alternating electric and magnetic fields produced by accelerating charged particles. These alternating electric and magnetic fields propagate perpendicular to the direction of propagation of a wave. Another characteristic of light is that it can propagate even in the absence of a medium. This is why sunlight can easily reach Earth even if there is only an empty space between the planet and the sun. All forms of light waves are electromagnetic waves; thus, they all travel at the same speed of {eq}3.00\times 10^8 {/eq} m/s.

Electromagnetic waves are an example of a transverse wave, where the alternating movement of electric and magnetic fields is perpendicular to the direction of propagation.

electromagnetic waves

Types of Light Waves

The electromagnetic spectrum includes all the different forms of light waves which vary only in terms of their frequencies and wavelengths. Note that each type has no distinct division and may overlap from time to time. The following are the different forms of light waves (kinds of electromagnetic waves) arranged in increasing frequency and decreasing wavelengths:

  • Radio waves have wavelengths greater than 0.1 m. They have the longest wavelength in the electromagnetic spectrum, which can range from the length of a football to the diameter of a planet. These waves are commonly used for communications such as television and radio.
  • Microwaves have shorter wavelengths than radio waves and have frequencies ranging from {eq}10^9 {/eq} Hz to {eq}10^{12} {/eq} Hz. These waves are utilized in satellite communications.
  • Infrared waves are found between microwaves and visible light, albeit the boundary is not distinctly defined. The term infrared means 'below red,' which gives a hint that it is found near the lower limit of visible light. These waves are used in thermal imaging and heating.
  • Visible light is the only part of the electromagnetic spectrum that can be seen by human eyes. It is a very narrow range with wavelengths between 400 nm to 750 nm. It has six components or colors, namely, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. Red has the longest wavelength but has the lowest frequency, while violet has the shortest wavelength and the highest frequency. It is mainly responsible for human vision and how humans perceive light.
  • Ultraviolet rays are found just above the violet part of the visible light, hence its name. Its wavelength ranges between 400 nm to about 10 nm. It is invisible to the human eye, but some insects, such as bumblebees can see objects using them. It is used in sterilization.
  • X-rays are found between ultraviolet and gamma rays and have wavelengths that extend from {eq}10^{-8} {/eq} to {eq}10^{-12} {/eq} m. X-rays are more penetrating than ultraviolet rays and affect living cells. They are widely used in security and medical imaging.
  • Gamma rays have the shortest wavelength but have the highest frequency. Consequently, they are also the most penetrating and have the highest energy among the electromagnetic radiation. They are commonly produced by neutron stars and supernova explosions. They are also used in nuclear medicine, security, and cancer treatments due to their high energy.

The components of the electromagnetic spectrum are arranged based on their wavelengths and frequencies.

electromagnetic spectrum

Examples of Light Waves

The different forms of light waves are encountered and used everyday. Some of the examples of light waves are so common that they are often overlooked from time to time.

Sunlight is a source of visible light. It enables humans to perceive things around them. Light bulbs, fireflies, and stars all emit visible light. However, harmful ultraviolet radiation also comes from the sun and may result in skin damage after long exposures. Ultraviolet rays are also used to detect counterfeit money, where special ink invisible under normal lighting conditions is detected by exposing bills to ultraviolet light. This application has been easily integrated into identification cards and credit cards for additional security.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is an example of a light wave?

Light waves have different forms: radio waves, microwaves, infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, X-rays, and gamma rays. Sunlight is a source of visible light and ultraviolet radiation. X-rays and gamma rays are used in medical diagnosis, cancer treatment, and security.

What are light waves?

Light waves transfer energy from a source. It is composed of discrete packets of massless photons. Light waves are transverse waves and can propagate even without a medium.

What are 3 characteristics of light waves?

Light waves have a wavelength, frequency, and speed. Wavelength is the distance between two identical parts of a wave, such as from crest to crest or trough to trough. Frequency is the number of waves that pass through a fixed point at a given time. Speed is the distance traveled by the wave per unit time. All forms of light waves have the same speed in vacuum (3.00 * 10^8 m/s).

Is light a transverse wave?

Light waves are transverse waves. It is produced by alternating electric and magnetic fields perpendicular to the propagation of the wave.

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