Biology » Photosynthesis » The Light-Dependent Reactions of Photosynthesis

What is Light Energy?

What is Light Energy?

The sun emits an enormous amount of electromagnetic radiation (solar energy). Humans can see only a fraction of this energy, which portion is therefore referred to as “visible light.” The manner in which solar energy travels is described as waves.

Scientists can determine the amount of energy of a wave by measuring its wavelength, the distance between consecutive points of a wave. A single wave is measured from two consecutive points, such as from crest to crest or from trough to trough (see the figure below).

The illustration shows two waves. The distance between the crests (or troughs) is the wavelength.

The wavelength of a single wave is the distance between two consecutive points of similar position (two crests or two troughs) along the wave.

Visible light constitutes only one of many types of electromagnetic radiation emitted from the sun and other stars. Scientists differentiate the various types of radiant energy from the sun within the electromagnetic spectrum.

The electromagnetic spectrum is the range of all possible frequencies of radiation (see the figure below). The difference between wavelengths relates to the amount of energy carried by them.

The illustration lists the types of electromagnetic radiation in order of increasing wavelength. These include gamma rays, X-rays, ultraviolet, visible, infrared, and radio. Gamma rays have a very short wavelength, on the order of one thousandth of a nanometer. Radio waves have a very long wavelength, on the order of one kilometer. Visible light ranges from 380 nanometers at the violet end of the spectrum, to 750 nanometers at the red end of the spectrum.

The sun emits energy in the form of electromagnetic radiation. This radiation exists at different wavelengths, each of which has its own characteristic energy. All electromagnetic radiation, including visible light, is characterized by its wavelength.

Each type of electromagnetic radiation travels at a particular wavelength. The longer the wavelength (or the more stretched out it appears in the diagram), the less energy is carried. Short, tight waves carry the most energy.

This may seem illogical, but think of it in terms of a piece of moving a heavy rope. It takes little effort by a person to move a rope in long, wide waves. To make a rope move in short, tight waves, a person would need to apply significantly more energy.

The electromagnetic spectrum (see the figure above) shows several types of electromagnetic radiation originating from the sun, including X-rays and ultraviolet (UV) rays. The higher-energy waves can penetrate tissues and damage cells and DNA, explaining why both X-rays and UV rays can be harmful to living organisms.

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