Physics » Electromagnetic Waves » The Electromagnetic Spectrum

The broad category of radio waves is defined to contain any electromagnetic wave produced by currents in wires and circuits. Its name derives from their most common use as a carrier of audio information (i.e., radio). The name is applied to electromagnetic waves of similar frequencies regardless of source. Radio waves from outer space, for example, do not come from alien radio stations. They are created by many astronomical phenomena, and their study has revealed much about nature on the largest scales.

There are many uses for radio waves, and so the category is divided into many subcategories, including microwaves and those electromagnetic waves used for AM and FM radio, cellular telephones, and TV.

The lowest commonly encountered radio frequencies are produced by high-voltage AC power transmission lines at frequencies of 50 or 60 Hz. (See this figure.) These extremely long wavelength electromagnetic waves (about 6000 km!) are one means of energy loss in long-distance power transmission.

There is an ongoing controversy regarding potential health hazards associated with exposure to these electromagnetic fields ($$E$$-fields). Some people suspect that living near such transmission lines may cause a variety of illnesses, including cancer. But demographic data are either inconclusive or simply do not support the hazard theory. Recent reports that have looked at many European and American epidemiological studies have found no increase in risk for cancer due to exposure to $$E$$-fields.

Extremely low frequency (ELF) radio waves of about 1 kHz are used to communicate with submerged submarines. The ability of radio waves to penetrate salt water is related to their wavelength (much like ultrasound penetrating tissue)—the longer the wavelength, the farther they penetrate. Since salt water is a good conductor, radio waves are strongly absorbed by it, and very long wavelengths are needed to reach a submarine under the surface. (See this figure.)

AM radio waves are used to carry commercial radio signals in the frequency range from 540 to 1600 kHz. The abbreviation AM stands for amplitude modulation, which is the method for placing information on these waves. (See this figure.) A carrier wave having the basic frequency of the radio station, say 1530 kHz, is varied or modulated in amplitude by an audio signal. The resulting wave has a constant frequency, but a varying amplitude.

A radio receiver tuned to have the same resonant frequency as the carrier wave can pick up the signal, while rejecting the many other frequencies impinging on its antenna. The receiver’s circuitry is designed to respond to variations in amplitude of the carrier wave to replicate the original audio signal. That audio signal is amplified to drive a speaker or perhaps to be recorded.

Continue With the Mobile App | Available on Google Play